Future Hospitalist: Top 10 tips for carrying out a successful quality improvement project


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.

Dr. Maria Reyna, assistant professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine and unit medical director at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City

Dr. Maria Reyna

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

Dr. Alfred Burger, associate professor and associate program director, Internal Medicine Residency at Mount Sinai Beth Israel

Dr. Alfred Burger

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.

8. Communicate project goals and progress

Dr. Harry Cho of Mount Sinai, New York City

Dr. Harry Cho

Progress and changes need to be communicated effectively and repeatedly – do not assume that team members are aware. Celebrate the achievement of intermediate goals and small successes to ensure engagement and commitment of the team. Feedback and reminders help develop the momentum that is crucial for any long-term project.

9. Manage resistance to change

“People responsible for planning and implementing change often forget that while the first task of change management is to understand the destination and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home.” – William Bridges

Inertia is powerful. We may consider our continuous performance improvement initiative as “the next big thing” but others may not share this enthusiasm. We therefore need to build a compelling reason for others to become engaged and accept major changes to work flow. Different strategies may be needed depending on your audience. Though for some, data and a rational analysis will be persuasive, for others the emotional argument will be the most motivating. Share personal anecdotes and use patient stories. In addition, let providers know “what’s in it for them.” Some may have a personal interest in your project or may need QI experience for career advancement; others might be motivated by the possibilities for scholarship arising from this work.

10. Make the work count twice

Consider QI as a scholarly initiative from the start to bring rigor to the project at all phases. Describe the project in an abstract or manuscript once improvements have been made. Publication is a great way to boost team morale and help make a business case for future improvement work. The Standards for Quality Improvement Reporting Excellence (SQUIRE) guidelines provide an excellent framework for designing and writing up an improvement project.4 The guidelines focus on why the project was started, what was done, what was found, and what the findings mean.

Driving change is challenging, and it is tempting to jump ahead to “fixing the problem.” But implementing a successful QI project requires intelligent direction, strategic planning, and skillful execution. It is our hope that following the above tips will help you develop the best possible ideas and approach implementation in a systematic way, ultimately leading to meaningful change.

Dr. Reyna is assistant professor in the division of hospital medicine and unit medical director at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She is a Certified Clinical Microsystems Coach. Dr. Burger is associate professor and associate program director, internal medicine residency, at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. He is on the faculty for the SGIM Annual Meeting Precourse on QI and is head of the high value care committee at the department of medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. Dr. Cho is assistant professor and director of quality and safety in the division of hospital medicine at Mount Sinai. He is a senior fellow at the Lown Institute.


1. MacLeod L. Making SMART goals smarter. Physician Exec. 2012 Mar-Apr;38(2):68-70, 72.

2. Langley GL, Moen R, Nolan KM, Nolan TW, Norman CL, Provost LP. The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 2009.

3. Nelson EC, Batalden PB, Godfrey MM. Quality By Design: A Clinical Microsystems Approach. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass; 2007.

4. Ogrinc G, Davies L, Goodman D et.al. SQUIRE 2.0 (Standards for Quality Improvement Reporting Excellence): revised publication guidelines from a detailed consensus process. BMJ Qual Saf. 2015 Sep 14.

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