Editor’s Note: This column is a quarterly feature written by members of the Physicians in Training Committee. It aims to encourage and educate students, residents, and early career hospitalists.
One of the biggest challenges early career hospitalists, residents and medical students face in launching their first quality improvement (QI) project is knowing how and where to get started. QI can be highly rewarding, but it can also take valuable time and resources without guarantees of sustainable improvement. In this article, we outline 10 key factors to consider when starting a new project.
1. Frame your project so that it aligns with your hospital’s current goals
Choose a project with your hospital’s goals in mind. Securing resources such as health IT, financial, or staffing support will prove difficult unless you get buy-in from hospital leadership. If your project does not directly address hospital goals, frame the purpose to demonstrate that it still fits with leadership priorities. For example, though improving handoffs from daytime to nighttime providers may not be a specific goal, leadership should appreciate that this project is expected to improve patient safety.
2. Be SMART about goals
Many QI projects fail because the scope of the initial project is too large, unrealistic, or vague. Creating a clear and focused aim statement and keeping it “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) will bring structure to the project.1 “We will reduce Congestive Heart Failure readmissions on 5 medicine units at our hospital by 2.5% in 6 months” is an example of a SMART aim statement.
3. Involve the right people from the start
QI project disasters often start with the wrong team. Select members based on who is needed and not who is available. It is critical to include representatives or “champions” from each area that will be affected. People will buy into a new methodology much more quickly if they were engaged in its development or know that respected members in their area were involved.
4. Use a simple, systematic approach to guide improvement work
Various QI models exist and each offers a systematic approach for assessing and improving care services. The Model for Improvement developed by the Associates in Process Improvement2 is a simple and powerful framework for quality improvement that asks three questions: (1) What are we trying to accomplish? (2) How will we know a change is an improvement? (3) What changes can we make that will result in improvement? The model incorporates Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to test changes on a small scale.
5. Good projects start with good background data
As with patient care, to improve a service’s “health status,” you must gather baseline information before prescribing any solutions. Anecdotal information helps, but to accurately assess baseline performance you need details and data. Data will determine the need for improvement as well as the scope of the project. Use QI tools such as process mapping or a fishbone diagram to identify potential causes of error.3
6. Choose interventions that are high impact, low effort
People will more easily change if the change itself is easy. So consider the question “does this intervention add significant work?” The best interventions change a process without causing undue burden to the clinicians and staff involved.
7. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it
After implementation, collect enough data to know whether the changes made improved the process. Study outcome, process, and balancing measures. If possible, use data already being collected by your institution. While it is critical to have quantitative measures, qualitative data such as surveys and observations can also enrich understanding.
Example: Increasing early discharges in medical unit.
Outcome measure – This is the desired outcome that the project aims to improve. This may be the percentage of discharges before noon (DBN) or the average discharge time.
Process measure – This is a measure of a specific change made to improve the outcome metric. The discharge orders may need to be placed earlier in the electronic medical record to improve DBN. This average discharge order time is an example of a process measure.
Balance measure – This metric evaluates whether the intended outcome is leading to unintended consequences. For example, tracking the readmission rate is an important balance measure to assess whether improved DBN is associated with rushed discharges and possible unsafe transitions.