Diagnosis: Six Sigma helps healthcare

There is no denying that the US healthcare system is facing a troubling time. President Barack Obama has made healthcare reform a top priority for the coming years and with expenditure spiralling and patient waiting times getting longer there is a definite need for improvements to be made as soon as possible.

While many of the issues faced by the US healthcare system need government intervention, there are things that hospitals, doctors' surgeries and other healthcare facilities can do at a more micro level to tackle some of the day-to-day issues, including using the Six Sigma management techniques.

The ultimate aim of Six Sigma is to improve quality and make processes more cost and time effective, something which could have a real positive impact on US healthcare organisations.

Six Sigma to the rescue!

So much of the work done in healthcare organisations revolves around processes, including scheduling appointments, co-ordinating rotas, processing invoices and insurance claims, and discharging patients. So, it makes sense to examine these processes regularly and ensure that they are being carried out in the most efficient manner.

In the book, Improving Healthcare Quality and Cost with Six Sigma by Brett Trusko, Praveen Gupta, Jim Harrington and Carolyn Pexton, the authors argue that Six Sigma is the "natural" way to solve many of the healthcare system's issues.

"The methodology seeks to improve customer satisfaction, reduce cycle times, reduce costs, and improve quality," they stated.

"Six Sigma is different from other efforts in the past since the focus of the improvement is always the patient or other customer. We will talk about why customer satisfaction through reduced variability leads to higher quality and, contrary to popular belief, higher quality is always the low-cost alternative."

Six Sigma In Practice

One healthcare organisation proving the case for lean Six Sigma is the Southcoast Health System in the US, which has seen $20 million in cost benefits since it started implementing Six Sigma across its three hospitals two years ago.

In addition to the cost savings, which were realised by examining all departments' processes and refining them, the introduction of Six Sigma has helped improve patient care and safety.

Speaking to South Coast Today, Nidia Williams, director of quality outcomes and a certified master black belt in Lean Six Sigma, said that all tasks related to patient care were prioritised.

For example, patients having cardiac catheterisation procedures now have to arrive 75 minutes before their appointment rather than two-and-a-half hours, meaning that they have less time to sit and worry.

What Are The Barriers To Using Six Sigma Within Healthcare?

Despite there being obvious benefits to implementing Six Sigma within healthcare organisations, many are still reluctant to start using it.

Concerns over increased workloads and fears that making processes more efficient and cutting costs may lead to job cuts prevent many organisations from pursuing Six Sigma.

However, according to Ms Williams, the opposite is true. She said that the time saved by using Six Sigma can free people up to work on other tasks and that once staff get involved with the process they tend to become enthusiastic and motivated.

"It doesn't become an extra, it becomes the way we do our work," she added.

There is also an element of people viewing Six Sigma as simply a manufacturing solution and failing to recognise how it can be applied to other industries.

How To Make It Work

In order to help overcome people's concerns about Six Sigma, communication is key.

It is important that all staff members are kept fully informed about what tasks are taking place and what the anticipated outcomes are.

Holding team meetings where staff members can ask any questions about the Six Sigma process and its impact on their job can help reassure staff and give them a forum to air any questions and concerns.

As the ultimate aim of Six Sigma is to make businesses run more efficiently any changes should have a positive impact for staff. Highlighting this through good communication or demonstrating it through implementing some introductory tasks should go a long way to garnering support for the process.