Gettin’ Dirty


Several months ago, my toilet broke. You should also know that I’m not particularly handy. So when I first realized that the toilet bowl seemed to fill constantly, I got a little stressed out.

How much was it going cost to call in a plumber on the weekend?

What kind of a water bill was I going to have?

Was this a serious problem?

I took a quick peek in the tank, but that just made me more confused. I was paralyzed by a lack of know-how.

Normally, I would have just Googled a local plumber. But that day, I decided to do something different. Maybe it was because it was the fantasy football offseason. Maybe it was because my wife had started to ask my father-in-law to change light bulbs around the house. Or, maybe, I wanted to learn to actually fix the problem. A few hours later, after an Internet lesson in toilet physiology, a $4.12 trip to Home Depot, and a wet pair of hands, I had replaced my first toilet flapper.

This wasn’t the rebuilding of a car engine, but it was a clear DIY step toward self-improvement. Easily the most memorable moment here was my sense of accomplishment.

I felt empowered.

A few hours later, after an Internet lesson in toilet physiology, a $4.12 trip to Home Depot, and a wet pair of hands, I had replaced my first toilet flapper.

One Part Science, One Part Art

It’s taken me a while to realize this, but I’ve begun to take advantage of improvement opportunities at work as well. No, I haven’t been moonlighting as a plumber for my hospital. I’ve just been fortunate to be part of a trifecta of rewarding quality-improvement (QI) projects over the past year. Before I’d gotten my hands dirty with these, my understanding of QI was fairly naive. I’d heard about Plan-Do-Study-Act many times. I had listened to a talk at a national conference. And I had kept up with the general medical literature on the subject.

But none of those activities had truly prepared me for experience of actually doing the work on my own.

By taking on a project, an ambitious attempt to reduce continuous pulse oximetry use, I experienced a crash course in both the science and the art of process improvement. I was forced to overcome my “I don’t know how” inertia. And with expert guidance in the form of a clinical safety and effectiveness class, I learned the importance of run charts (science) and a well-crafted multidisciplinary team (art) in changing established but inefficient behavior.

Our rates of continuous pulse oximetry usage dropped by 50%, and cost savings were $12,000 per year on one unit. These results made my prior attempts at change—years of complaining about ingrained nursing culture—look infantile. (OK, maybe it was ineffective, but who hasn’t complained about the overuse of continuous monitoring?)

I haven’t met a pediatric hospitalist who wouldn’t understand the symbolic importance of this success. But I know of many hospitalists who have not yet participated in meaningful QI project. Imagine calling a plumber who grasped the flush and fill mechanism of a toilet but had never touched real porcelain. Here’s an even better analogy: What if doctors could get licensed without having touched real patients?

If pediatric hospitalists are to transform the care delivery of hospitalized children, and quality learning only comes through hands-on training, then we need some more hands in the pot.

Discharge Improvement

On the heels of my first project, I was fortunate enough to augment my education through another effort—this time with a cohort of fellow pediatric hospitalists. This was a national collaborative to improve discharge handoffs, and I will admit that, at the outset, I was as puzzled as the first time I pulled the lid off the tank of the toilet. There were just too many permutations on PCP communication at the participating institutions, and some felt our aim of timely discharge handoffs was unattainable.

What carried me through, however, was the collective and infectious DIY—no, QIY (Quality Improve-it-Yourself) attitude of the group. We were all learning, and regular participation in the collaborative essentially guaranteed improvement. We achieved our aim of 90% communication with PCPs within two days of discharge. The secret was simple: The more you do, the more you learn.

Pediatric hospitalists can transform care delivery through a focus on safe and quality care, but the tools to accomplish this must come through post-residency, on-the-job learning. This QI know-how must efficiently spread among our ranks through practical and project-based educational efforts. It’s “see one, do one, teach one,” but we’re not talking about lumbar punctures anymore.

This is a journey in which we all take on the responsibility of rolling up our sleeves and simply learn by doing. And here is where the third leg of my as-yet-unfinished QI course unfolds.

Through my involvement with the Value in Inpatient Pediatrics (VIP) Network, I’ve gained a newfound vision for what the future might hold. VIP has evolved from a benchmarking project focused on bronchiolitis to an improvement network that will incorporate projects similar to the discharge handoff collaborative above.

In the process, a model for how to rapidly spread QI learning has emerged. The capacity lies in the network’s rapidly growing connectivity. The power comes from the individuals: motivated, card-carrying pediatric hospitalists from a wide array of sites. Collaborative learning harbors the potential to exponentially increase the pace at which we improve.

The future of our quality care is bright. I see an open network of improvement doers and learners. I see collaboration on quality and safety initiatives in all manner of hospitals and communities. I see that this will all be built upon a foundation of hard work and a QIY attitude.

You, too, will play a role.

Just don’t be afraid to get your hands a little dirty. TH

Dr. Shen is medical director of hospital medicine at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas. He is pediatric editor of The Hospitalist.

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