How can hospitalists change the status quo?

Lean framework for efficiency and empathy of care


“My census is too high.”

“I don’t have enough time to talk to patients.”

“These are outside our scope of practice.”

Dr. Sowmya Kanikkannan

These are statements that I have heard from colleagues over the last fourteen years as a hospitalist. Back in 1996, when Dr. Bob Wachter coined the term ‘hospitalist,’ we were still in our infancy – the scope of what we could do had yet to be fully realized. Our focus was on providing care for hospitalized patients and improving quality of clinical care and patient safety. As health care organizations began to see the potential for our field, the demands on our services grew. We grew to comanage patients with our surgical colleagues, worked on patient satisfaction, facilitated transitions of care, and attempted to reduce readmissions – all of which improved patient care and the bottom line for our organizations.

Somewhere along the way, we were expected to staff high patient volumes to add more value, but this always seemed to come with compromise in another aspect of care or our own well-being. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and a limit on what one individual can accomplish in that time.

One of the reasons I love hospital medicine is the novelty of what we do – we are creative thinkers. We have the capacity to innovate solutions to hospital problems based on our expertise as frontline providers for our patients. Hospitalists of every discipline staff a large majority of inpatients, which makes our collective experience significant to the management of inpatient health care. We are often the ones tasked with executing improvement projects, but how often are we involved in their design? I know that we collectively have an enormous opportunity to improve our health care practice, both for ourselves, our patients, and the institutions we work for. But more than just being a voice of advocacy, we need to understand how to positively influence the health care structures that allow us to deliver quality patient care.

It is no surprise that the inefficiencies we deal with in our hospitals are many – daily workflow interruptions, delays in results, scheduling issues, communication difficulties. These are not unique to any one institution. The pandemic added more to that plate – PPE deficiencies, patient volume triage, and resource management are examples. Hospitals often contract consultants to help solve these problems, and many utilize a variety of frameworks to improve these system processes. The Lean framework is one of these, and it originated in the manufacturing industry to eliminate waste in systems in the pursuit of efficiency.

In my business training and prior hospital medicine leadership roles, I was educated in Lean thinking and methodologies for improving quality and applied its principles to projects for improving workflow. Last year I attended a virtual conference on ‘Lean Innovation during the pandemic’ for New York region hospitals, and it again highlighted how the Lean management methodology can help improve patient care but importantly, our workflow as clinicians. This got me thinking. Why is Lean well accepted in business and manufacturing circles, but less so in health care?

I think the answer is twofold – knowledge and people.


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