A Critical First Step


For those of you who were kind enough to catch my column in last month’s issue of The Hospitalist (see “What Is Your Value,” p. 56), you spent a few minutes reading my thoughts on the value of hospitalists. I mentioned the fact that the U.S. is moving rapidly toward a value-based system of purchasing healthcare, and that all healthcare providers, including hospitalists, increasingly will be judged on the value of care they deliver to their patients and the healthcare system. (Remember, value=quality/cost.)

Hospitalists, like all other healthcare providers, can increase their “value” by improving the quality of care they provide and decreasing the cost of healthcare delivery. Seems simple enough, right? Take better care of patients and do so while minimizing unnecessary costs. (If you have figured out how to do this, I want to learn from you!)

As a doctor and as the leader of the hospitalist group at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, I have given this topic considerable thought. How do I become a “high value” provider? How do I help my hospitalist colleagues become “high value” hospitalists? Another persistent thought that has crossed my mind is: “How do I know that I am not already a high-value hospitalist?”

Maybe all of my hospitalist colleagues at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are high-value providers. Seems fair enough, right? Maybe each of us is providing “high quality” care and doing so while minimizing unnecessary costs.

I mean, who really wants to think of themselves as low-quality doctors spending a considerable amount of unnecessary resources?

Like many of you, it became evident to me that the first step to improving quality and/or decreasing cost is to define “quality” and “cost.”

The First Step

Although it might seem difficult for the individual hospitalist to know the cost of a patient’s hospitalization, such information is available, and your hospital administrator might be willing to share such information with you and your group. But when it comes to quality of care, I think most patients would expect that doctors should understand the definition of “high-quality care.”

So, what is the definition of “high-quality care?” Try asking this question of patients and doctors, and you are likely to get very different answers. Not surprised? Try asking this question just to doctors, and you are likely to get some different answers. (For fun, you could try this exercise with your hospitalist colleagues; I have.)

Honestly, none of us should be alarmed if a group of doctors cannot easily define “high-quality care.” Not being able to do so does not mean these are “bad” doctors. While it may not be easy to define high-quality care, I suspect most of us recognize it when we see it.

The process of defining the quality of care involves capturing the essence of what we see. For example, can we agree that prescribing aspirin for patients with acute coronary syndrome is optimal care? If so, it stands to reason that a patient with acute coronary syndrome who did not receive aspirin received suboptimal care.

This is how a group of hospitalists can go about creating a quality standard. If you are a hospitalist or HM group leader who is interested in improving the quality of care you and your colleagues are providing to your patients, defining a quality standard is the critical first step to process improvement. Do not limit yourself to clinical processes. Although clinical processes are important, so are communication and documentation processes.

Defining a quality standard is the critical first step to process improvement. Do not limit yourself to clinical processes. Although clinical processes are important, so are communication and documentation processes.

For example, most of us, as hospitalists, believe that communication with outpatient providers is important to the provision of high-quality inpatient care. How often do your hospitalists communicate with patients’ primary-care providers? Is this a quality standard for your hospitalist group? What about the documentation of a patient’s code status at the time of admission or documentation of a patient’s functional status in the discharge summary?

If you believe these are important, your group should include these as quality standards. You should be measuring them and reporting the results to individual providers.

Start with Definition

At this point, some of us might be tempted to get ahead of ourselves and worry about what standards we can or cannot measure, but I urge you to complete this first step of defining “high-quality care” before worrying about anything else. (In other words, don’t start running before you can walk.)

Another suggestion: Please don’t try to do too much all at once. Nobody is going to argue that patients with acute coronary syndrome should not receive aspirin. Reaching consensus on other quality standards might not be as easy. But do not get bogged down trying to create too many quality standards all at once. Start with a few and get yourself and your colleagues accustomed to the process.

Remember, when it comes to doctors, we have centuries of history of not knowing exactly what we are doing. I hope it won’t take centuries to fix this problem, but I also know we are not going to fix this in a few days or weeks. Small victories along the way are important if we hope to succeed.

Once you and your hospitalist colleagues arrive at a mutually agreed upon quality standard, the next step is performance measurement. I honestly believe performance measurement is easy when we spend the time understanding and agreeing to the most appropriate quality standards for our hospitalist groups.

I am interested in learning about your efforts to define the quality standards for your hospitalist group. Feel free to email me at [email protected].

Dr. Li is president of SHM.

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