Lean in Healthcare

By the end of 2005, a “petition” was building momentum in the Healthcare industry - “We need to become Lean...” Although the need has been there for some time, the direction (the how-to) has been nebulous and ill-defined. “We are unique,” say the healthcare practitioners. “We must have something that is new, different, and exclusive to our industry...”


However, while it is true that there are many unique facets to ANY business, in ANY industry, it is also true that the principles and practices of Lean are applicable to any environment where the management and staff are willing to look at their business through “new eyes.”


The foundation of Lean is the elimination of waste through continuous improvement initiatives.  Anyone who works in the Healthcare industry, or even those of us who have been on the receiving end of healthcare, knows that there is countless waste in the industry: from long waits to astronomical costs; from lack of standardization to inordinate quantities of inventory; from paperwork mountains to errors and rework.


The very recognition of these inadequacies in the existing system(s) means that healthcare practitioners have already begun the first step of Lean - seeing things more clearly, and realizing that you CAN improve. Lean simply provides the tools that allow you to attack the individual problems through a structured and systematic approach.


One of the major differences in the healthcare industry, versus say, manufacturing, is the potential consequences. In manufacturing, if we make mistakes, the cost translates into lost time and money.  In Healthcare, however, mistakes can translate into ‘life or death.’


Therefore, and most assuredly, because of this fact, it is all the more important for the industry to ‘come out of the closet’ and start looking at the systems that allow errors to occur.

  • Despite spending more for Healthcare, Americans do not have the best medical care in the world, according to researchers for Johns Hopkins and other institutions. The study was done comparing healthcare in five countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and US). (Health Affairs, May/June 2004 issue)
  • The World Health Organization in Geneva rates national health systems by a variety of criteria, and on all scales France is among the world's leaders. The U.S. ranks 37th.
  • The US ranks: 
    #1  in COST of health care
    #24 in disability-adjusted life expectancy
    #37 in the overall performance of its medical system
    #40 in the level of satisfaction recipients express for their care

    According to Cheryl Seal (The Myth of American Health Care) at Democrats. COM.

If the above is some of the ‘bad news,’ the ‘good news’ is that there is a solution! Part of that solution lies in the adoption of Lean principles and practices. Lean is the “new eyes” through which we see our workplace. It is the striving for perfection, and the elimination of wasteful activities and errors. It is the point in time when we stop bemoaning the existing systems and begin creating better more efficient and more effective systems.

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