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Lean Thinking to Enhance Healthcare Quality and Patient Safety

Posted on January 19, 2012 in Articles

What is Lean Thinking in Healthcare?
Costs in providing healthcare in Singapore are rising too quickly and too many preventable errors occur in hospitals. We strongly believe Lean Thinking is our best shift in paradigm for improving quality and patient safety while truly reducing waste and excessive costs, thus increasing the value provided by healthcare systems. Today, a number of leading hospitals are demonstrating they can provide better value through proven and tested process improvement methods.

Some healthcare professionals often wonder how lean, a methodology associated primarily with the Toyota Production System and manufacturing industries, can apply in healthcare. Lean is not just a set of tools for eliminating waste and improving quality in a factory - it is a set of methods, principles, and philosophies that form a complete business management system. Lean can be applied in any setting where a service is provided, work is done, staff faces problems and issues, and people lead or manage others in a team setting, and this includes healthcare. Lean supports the purpose of any healthcare organisation - providing the best patient care and safety using the optimize amount of resources.

Lean is a customer-centric management philosophy. In healthcare, lean means focusing on the patient as the primary customer. This heightened patient focus means implementing new lean methods for ensuring patient safety and quality of care, such as mistake proofing methods.  Patient focus also means redesigning processes and physical spaces with the patient in mind, minimizing wait times and travel distances. We may describe these goals as: "Zero harm, zero wait, zero waste".

"Waste" is any activity that does not directly help move forward the patient's diagnosis or treatment. For example, care givers might search for missing supplies and equipment each and every day, facing the same frustrations repeatedly instead of stopping to fix the process, once and for all, so that these are always available. It is estimate that between 30 and 50% of all healthcare work activity can be categorized as "waste." The opportunity with lean is to reduce costs by eliminating waste, not through traditional cost cutting, thus raising productivity.

Lean focuses on doing more with less. Healthcare organisations typically believe their problems can only be solved with more staff, more space, and more money.  More staff is often not even an option, cost aside, because of extreme shortages of professionals. Through lean thinking, these organisations learn tools, methods and the mindset that allow them to increase capacity without adding people - true productivity.

It may seem like wishful thinking, but the necessary urgent and correct application of lean thinking in healthcare will bring benefits for all stakeholders -- patients, staff, and the hospital.

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