Practice Management

Establish Clear Goals Before Changing Improvement Projects


I recently was appointed the director of my hospitalist group at a 53-bed hospital in rural Wisconsin. Including myself, we have three hospitalist FTEs, one part-time hospitalist, and one nurse practitioner; we are all seasoned internists, but we are relatively new to HM and the 24/7 nature of the business. The hospital administration has charged me with making the program more efficient. What do you suggest I do to improve our efficiency and standard of patient care?

Andrew Neubauer, DO, MPH

Dr. Hospitalist responds: Congratulations aside, one of the first items at hand is to understand the question being asked. Your hospital administration potentially has many moving parts: a CEO for vision, a chief operating officer (COO) for execution, a chief medical officer (CMO) for medical staff initiatives, and a chief financial officer (CFO) for the hard truth of hospital finances.

Before you take any steps to improve efficiency, you need to ask what “efficiency” means.

  • Is it the CFO asking for better financial returns?
  • Is the CEO trying to woo a large surgical group and needs to tout his high-functioning hospitalist group to make it more attractive?
  • Does the CMO want to improve staff relations and primary-care referrals?
  • Does the COO want higher patient satisfaction?

Whatever the answer is, the first thing to do is define the question. So, in a non-confrontational, inquisitive way, ask your administrators what they mean by “efficiency.”

The immediate corollary to this is that you must then get baseline data. You have to know where you are starting from in order to show demonstrable progress toward a goal. Whether it’s the case-mix index, the readmission rate, or adherence to protocols, defining the baseline and the goal is paramount.

Why is this so important? You need to be able to prove you met the goals, because as soon as you meet this one, a new one will be placed in front of you.

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Let’s assume, by way of example, that “efficiency” in this case means an earlier time of discharge. For starters, ask what the average time of discharge is now, how it is measured, what the desired result is, and why. Once you have that information, look for ways that your group can improve, and make sure that the hospital is measuring you only on things you can control. Your physicians can determine the time the discharge order is written, but they have no say in when the patient physically leaves the building. It might seem like a subtle distinction, but it can make all the difference depending on how “time of discharge” is defined. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver—you’ll disappoint both the hospital and your practice partners.

Going forward, you should keep a playbook of past goals asked of you, and your group’s actions. This is incredibly important if (when) your contract comes up for renewal, since you will need to gently (and sometimes forcefully) remind the hospital of your group’s value. In addition, the other main constant in any hospital administration is change; last I checked, the average tenure for a hospital CEO is four years. You want to always be able to communicate your group’s achievements to serve as a visible reminder of your central role in the hospital.

As the newly appointed medical director, everyone is looking to you for answers. Just make sure to focus on the question first. TH