Sneak Peek: The Hospital Leader blog - Aug. 2017 “A Conversation with Dr. Eric Howell”

The essentials of QI: It starts with leadership.


Quality improvement became a foundational theme for SHM early in the growth of hospitalists. It’s not a coincidence that many of our leaders, such as Bob Wachter, Win Whitcomb, Greg Maynard, and Mark Williams are QI leaders as well. As hospitalists, we were and are best positioned to impact quality in the hospital.

Eric Howell, MD, of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore serves as the senior physician advisor for SHM’s Center for Quality Improvement, while Jenna Goldstein runs the day-to-day aspects at SHM headquarters. A few months ago, Dr. Howell and I discussed how he started in QI, the role of SHM’s Center, and how hospitalists can receive effective QI training. The following Q&A is edited for conciseness and clarity.

Dr. Jordan Messler

Dr. Jordan Messler

You’ve been a leader in QI for many years; how did you get started in QI?

I trained as an electrical engineer before I went to medical school, which helped me when I went to residency.

When I was a chief at Hopkins Bayview in 1999, there were a number of systems-related issues, including throughput from the emergency department. I became involved with QI because I looked at these systems, thinking they could be better if I used the lens of an engineer. The hospital was very interested in reducing costs, and the physicians, including myself, were interested in making things safer. I was successful because I didn’t just focus on QI but on both sides of the value equation. In the early 2000s, I started to do more and more re-engineering and system improvement projects, and I found them very rewarding. As I showed some success, I was asked to do more.

What you are describing is hands-on training, learning by doing. It seems a lot of your QI training was hands on, as opposed to structured coursework. Was there formal training or is getting your hands dirty in a project the best way to start learning QI?

There is no replacement for actually doing it.

My training was in leadership, which is an integral part of QI. It’s pretty hard to get people to change for quality if you can’t lead them through that change. Initially, I did a lot of work to improve my leadership potential. As faculty, we taught teaching skills, which is a part of leadership. I spent time teaching residents best practices. That’s why I became involved early on with SHM’s Leadership Academy from its start in 2005. I also read a lot of books and still read often to improve my weaknesses. I have my own physicians go through Lean Six Sigma training and get their green belt or black belt.

That said, there is no substitute for doing it and, as they say, “bruising your knuckles” in QI.

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