Applying Lean Six Sigma to Healthcare Management

Inefficiency or error in any industry is costly; in the healthcare sector, it can be devastating. To combat those high stakes, healthcare organizations have increasingly adopted Lean Six Sigma approaches to increase care quality and reduce inefficiency and its corresponding mistakes. Creative Healthcare founder Ian Lazarus describes in Becker’s Hospital Review how the methodology started off slowly when introduced in 2001, but has become common practice in mainstream healthcare.

Lean Six Sigma and healthcare are now nearly inseparable because the results are so effective. Correct Lean Six Sigma implementation offers multiple benefits.

Better Quality of Care

One key benefit of Lean Six Sigma is its focus on ways to reduce cost, aside from simply relying on staff layoffs. Instead, the emphasis is on how to complete treatment and release a patient quickly, therefore improving your payment times. While this focus does improve the bottom line for healthcare organizations, more importantly, it improves care. Streamlined processes translate to faster patient care practices, and offer fewer opportunities for human error. For example, if lab time is minimized, patients are diagnosed more quickly, which can lead to better outcomes and fewer costly hospital stays. Overall, patients receive consistent, timely and less risk-prone care, which improves the quality of their total experience.

Reduced Costs

When care improves, costs decrease as treatment becomes more efficient and fewer issues occur. Not to mention, if processes are streamlined, healthcare organizations are less likely to waste supplies, as in the case of the North Shore University Hospital-Manhasset Cardiothoracic Critical Care Unit. Before undertaking the Six Sigma process, the unit lost an estimated $66.11 in unused supplies per patient. After reviewing the data, the Six Sigma team recommended the unit adopt carts for stocking rooms, instead of pre-stocking the rooms, and supply on a customized basis. This adjustment reduced the loss per patient to just $9.16, a total savings estimated at $55,000 when applied to all 14 rooms. The same efficiency can be applied to bio supplies as well. For example, The Lean Six Sigma team at Johns Hopkins Medicine cites an instance where they saved $800,000 across four years by reducing the red blood cell unit discard rate by 50%. 

In other cases, costs can stem from people and staffing inefficiencies. Through Lean Six Sigma, The Red Cross Hospital saved an estimated €200,000 in a single year by implementing processes to improve patient and specialists’ timely arrival, provide structure and prioritization to maintenance, and reduce errors in people management reporting.

Increased Patient Safety and Satisfaction

In the case of healthcare, putting patients at ease can be pivotal for patient satisfaction. A small nonprofit hospital applied Lean Six Sigma to reduce the wait time on mammogram results, recognizing that the waiting period was often anxiety-ridden for women waiting on a diagnosis. When Lean Six Sigma improvements reduced waiting time, customer improvement scores increased from 91.2 to 95.1.

Streamlining processes through Lean Six Sigma ensures critical steps are missed and reduces risks, but it also tends to make for faster treatment overall – and since wait times are a key area for patient complaints, process improvements tend to cut those complaints down.

Enhanced Compliance

Compliance is critical to healthcare organizational performance, as failure to practice correct procedure can drive harmful events at worst, and fines for non-compliance or decreased patient satisfaction at best.

In some instances, poor – or nonexistent – process can result in simple compliance steps being overlooked, like discharging patients without proper materials. One non-profit hospital uncovered a rate of only 45% proper inpatient heart failure discharge instruction. In applying Lean Six Sigma, the organization was able to standardize the discharge process and instructions, and improve training and knowledge for staff.

Lean Six Sigma can support overall operational efficiency, cost-effectiveness and higher quality processes, ultimately improving patient, staff, and organizational experiences. With a focus on total – not only cost – improvement, Lean Six Sigma offers benefits to everyone, and as a result, can encourage participation in the process from staff and administration alike. From increasing productivity of healthcare professionals and surgical capacity to reducing billing errors and risk opportunities, Lean Six Sigma is a practice healthcare organizations should leverage as a regular practice to regularly improve care, satisfaction, and retention, ultimately creating a stronger organization – and healthier, happier patients.

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