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Un-complicating Healthcare IT

Lean Healthcare: The Answer To Your Operational Challenges

Jul 14, 2015 8:09:00 AM Posted by Jim Tufts | Leadership Solutions Team Lead

If your healthcare organization is battling serious operational challenges, lean healthcare is an answer worth considering.

Going lean is an effective way to streamline operations, improve care delivery and implement best practices that lower stress and increase profitability.

Ultimately, lean is 80 percent philosophy, 20 percent tools. If you walked into a lean hospital tomorrow expecting to see radically different technology, processes or staffing, you’d be disappointed. Instead, you’d likely encounter:

  • A patient waiting room with few or no patients
  • A “huddle board” outlining daily tasks and goals
  • Surprisingly (perhaps even suspiciously) calm nurses

Here’s a quick primer on what a lean healthcare environment actually is, and how taking your organization lean could help alleviate significant operational and financial burdens:

What Is Lean Healthcare, Anyway?

A lean healthcare organization is driven by the relentless pursuit of patient value and continuous improvement. A lean hospital, accordingly, gets everybody — from clinicians to administrators — delivering as much patient value as possible.

To do that, every employee must become a dedicated problem-solver. A lean team thrives on continuous improvement and strives for positive change every single day.

Everyday tasks, like taking an x-ray or performing surgery, are mapped out as value streams. Every point of every process is lined up; over time, every step that doesn’t directly contribute to patient value is eliminated.

When lean works as intended, the signs aren’t always obvious. But they are powerful. Workflow improves, work gets done right the first time and patients pay for services willingly. An emphasis on quality at all points leads to operational and financial best practices.

Use Lean To Tackle Operational Challenges

A lean mindset can help hospitals and other healthcare organizations address operational challenges that hurt care and profitability. Specific challenge areas might include:

 Hospital Staffing

For many organizations, finding the right people proves challenging and time-consuming. This is especially true for community hospitals and healthcare organizations. Fortunately, lean may be able to help.

Start by value-mapping your hiring process, lining up every step from first contact to job offer. Eliminate any steps that aren’t absolutely necessary to make the best decision possible.

For example, if staff hiring decisions hinge on input from a specialized committee that only meets once a month, weigh that step’s value. For non-leadership hires, consider scrapping it entirely. You’ll save a lot of time, fill positions faster and minimize impact to your day-to-day operations.

As an added bonus, organizations that effectively embrace lean often see a reduction in employee turnover. Lean thinking develops people to recognize and reduce waste, lowering stress on the job over time. More ownership, more engagement and lower stress means happier employees, the kind that tend to stick around.

Hospital Reimbursement

New value-based care mandates deny hospitals reimbursement for patients readmitted within 30 days of discharge. To prevent early readmission, hospitals should use lean methodology to value map and improve post-discharge operations.

The state of Iowa recognized our own lean advisory team after we helped one hospital to reduce its 30-day pneumonia readmission rate from 17 percent to 4 percent. Our team talked to nursing homes and other care centers over the course of a year, identifying areas where care continuity fell short. Creating a value map, the team partnered with these centers to make frequent, ongoing improvements to the post-discharge care process, following a lean, PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) model.

If your hospital struggles to secure reimbursement for a specific procedure, take a similar approach: map out the procedure’s value stream, then use it to make positive, ongoing improvements that eliminate waste and get results.

Patient Flow

Lean is an excellent way to address patient flow challenges. For example, your emergency department might staff heavy during peak hours — typically, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends — but still struggle to process patients efficiently. Plenty of hospitals have a Plan A for when things get heavy, but lack the all-important Plan B.

Hospital emergency department bottlenecks and backups create a lot of stress for staff and extra waiting time for patients. By value-mapping patient processing (noticing a common trend?) you’ll likely identify multiple bottlenecks. From there, you can focus on making changes that eliminate these bottlenecks and ensure uninterrupted patient value.

With your value map in hand, you might decide to cross-train billing and registration staff. That way, when one department is packed to the brim, the other can step in, lend a hand and restore agility, avoiding a subsequent “invoicing bubble” that might lead to costly mistakes.

Before you strike out and bring lean to your hospital, understand that lean is not an overnight solution. One common misconception about lean is that it’s all about going fast.

In truth, embracing lean philosophy, creating a lean culture and using lean to align people, process and technology requires time and due diligence. Lean isn’t a magic bullet; it’s a seed. Plant it, nurture it and when the time is right, reap the fruits of your labor.

Ready to see how lean healthcare can improve your operations? 

What Lean Healthcare Really Is And How To Get Started In Your Hospital

Talk To The Lean Experts At ICE 

Jim Tufts | Leadership Solutions Team Lead

Jim, along with the Leadership Solutions team, leads, guides healthcare providers, in user education, consulting, process improvement, disaster recovery planning, strategic IT planning and more. Jim is the author of the whitepaper, “Guide to the HIPAA Security Rule,” and is often found in healthcare association meetings, national conferences, or in a healthcare board room educating on protecting electronic patient health information.