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Can Standardization Cut Costs & Improve Quality?

Can Standardization Cut Costs & Improve Quality?

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A couple of articles in today's USA Today identify a growing - and seemingly controversial - trend at US hospitals: standardizing approaches to clinical care delivery in order to reduce costs.

Medical cost-cutting also can improve care

Hospitals try to find savings, cut unnecessary care

There is nothing really new here to drive the controversy as numerous healthcare organizations around the country are implementing Lean, Toyota Production System, or other methodologies in order to reduce waste. Some of that waste comes in the form of avoidable costs - which it would be good to remove from the system.

The controversy lies in the insinuation that this cost reduction comes at the expense of patient care or improvements in quality. In reality, numerous organizations have demonstrated that standardization of clinical processes leads to both improvement in quality as well as reduction of costs.

Doctors worry because they feel that their decision-making authority will be taken away from them in the process of "standardization"; but if you study the improvement efforts closely you realize that the common thread is that doctors and frontline staff are integrally involved in the standardization efforts, without whom the efforts would surely fail. Once the team has determined, with a lot of careful input and thought process, that "one particular approach" makes sense for their organization in order to improve quality AND reduce waste, individual physicians and staff would certainly be encouraged to implement that approach.

As clinicians will readily point out, the "one size fits all" approach doesn't work in medicine. That's when professional judgement is truly needed - knowing when to deviate from the standard approach, and personalizing the protocol or treatment to the individual patient and the particular scenario. However, the fact that we need to deviate from a standard should not be an argument against the development of standards, merely the recognition of the limits of standardization.

The real message from the critics of standardization should be that organizations pursuing standardization need to be vigilant in also building in appropriate mechanisms for deviation from the standard.

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