Is there a role in HM for industrial engineering or industrial efficiency models? Jonathan Turner, PhD, thinks so. He is an industrial-engineer-turned-hospital-engineer whose job is to help make hospital care safer, faster, less costly, and more satisfying. He has few peers in this role, although any hospitalist group in the vicinity of a college department of engineering could seek out similar expertise there. Real-world problems make the best research projects, he says.
“I wrote my thesis on how a vascular surgery department could use computer simulation models to help balance multiple objectives in scheduling residents,” says Turner, who earned his doctorate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
His thesis examined, among other things, the need for pre-operative continuity of care and resident exposure to a variety of surgical experiences. He also found himself hanging around Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago at a time when Mark Williams, MD, MHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine, was looking for ways to build collaboration between Northwestern’s medical school, hospital, and department of engineering.
“Our objectives were the same,” says Turner, who was hired by Dr. Williams in May 2011.
Turner says many of the challenges of managing an HM group—making patient rounds better, improving length of stay (LOS) and throughput, or deciding how to incorporate technology into practice—can be scrutinized with an efficiency lens. At Northwestern, he optimized the HM group schedule and made it more appealing to the physicians. He examined the incremental costs incurred by patient handoffs and the effectiveness of consultations with medical specialists. He tackled technology, teamwork, and wait-time issues. He even helped surgeons standardize their instrument trays.
But every hospitalist group—from the three-FTE teams covering rural hospitals to high-volume groups with dozens of moving parts—has developed inefficient habits. Experts say most groups have never even thought of the problems, let alone the solutions—for example, regularly inputting data into spreadsheets that no one ever looks at.
Efficiency is an essential target for quality initiatives in the hospital, although the word means different things to different people. It typically involves trade-offs that need to be balanced if the system as a whole is to benefit. What makes an individual practice more efficient could make a group’s less so—and vice versa. What helps one department’s bottom line can harm another’s. Enhancing hospitalists’ work-life balance through schedule modification could make life harder for nurses.
-Jonathan Turner, PhD
One current example that cuts across HM groups of all shapes and sizes is the discharge process. Hospitalist groups speeding up discharges might lead to inadequately prepared patients leaving the hospital, which could mean post-discharge crises, which could lead to unnecessary readmissions, which certainly will mean government penalties. Pure efficiency, in terms of maximizing caseloads, also can conflict with patient safety or patient satisfaction. In many healthcare settings, approaching 100% of capacity limits the ability to respond to surges in demand, Turner says. That usually leads to backups, long waits, dissatisfaction, and even diversions from the ED, he explains.
HM groups have pursued a variety of tools and strategies to enhance efficiency. “One of the things we try to show is that you use these methods every day—but you can be more systematic in how you apply them,” Turner says. The character and personality of practicing hospitalists, who tend to be more quality-minded and focused on systems, might make them more open to becoming efficiency experts and willing to try new approaches.