Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) is a process of progressive incremental improvement of processes, safety, and patient care. The goal of CQI may include improvement of operations, outcomes, systems processes, improved work environment, or regulatory compliance. Process improvement may be "gradual" or "breakthrough" in nature. CQI project development commonly includes defining the problem, benchmarking, and setting a goal, then iterative quality improvement projects. Through the iterative process, improvements are made, the effect of the improvements is measured, then the process is repeated until the desired outcome is achieved. Common methodologies for improvement include Lean, Six Sigma, Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles, and Baldrige Criteria.
As the technology for collecting care-delivery data and methods for tracking outcomes becomes more sophisticated and integrated into healthcare, CQI will become more vital to delivering quality care while maintaining profitability, healthcare provider satisfaction, and patient satisfaction. Overall, CQI is a quality initiative that repeatedly asks members of the healthcare team to determine, "How are we doing?" and, "Can we do it better?"
Issues of Concern
Projects should be targeted at specific, quantifiable patient care or operational outcomes. Projects should be designed in line with institutional interests, values, and key stakeholders. Failure to understand these interests and institutional political dimensions can result in the failure of the project.
Outcomes should be measured through metrics that can be defined as primary and secondary. Primary metrics are measurements of the outcome that is sought. Secondary metrics are ones that ensure that the error or deficiency is not changed to a new problem through the interventions of the project. For example, if the primary metric is to have more patients seen each day in a clinic, a reasonable secondary metric would be the number of patient care errors that occur. This ensures that deficiencies are improved through the changes made, and not just transitioned into a new deficiency.
Many CQI initiatives focus on improving one or more areas. Common CQI goals include:
- Cost reduction
- Decreased appointment wait time
- Reduced in-department wait time
- Higher patient volume
- Decreased cycle time
- Reducing defects
- Increased patient and/or staff safety
- Increased patient and/or staff satisfaction
In the seminal report "To Err is Human," in 1999, the Institue of Medicine detailed the impact of medical errors within healthcare in the United States. At that time, it was estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people died each year due to preventable medical errors. The focus of this report was not that there were bad people, but rather there were inadequate systems in place to keep patients safe while delivering high-quality medical care. It called upon the medical community to evaluate the systems and practice of healthcare delivery to improve patient safety and develop better systems to reduce errors. For example, after implementing a CQI strategy, a large healthcare consortium in Alabama serving HIV patients was able to decrease the missed-visits rate of its HIV patients by a statistically significant margin compared to a control group. A systematic review examining the application of Sig Sigma and Lean methodologies in surgery noted improvement or benefit in over 88% of studies. Though the researchers noted this may be influenced by systemic bias and imprecision in the definition of improvement. Another large systematic review looked at CQI applications in radiology. Across 23 studies, all noted improvements in either 1 or more areas, including cost-saving, reduced appointment wait time, decreased in-department wait time, higher patient volume, decreased cycle time, reduced defects, or increased patient or staff safety and satisfaction. There are numerous other examples of CQI providing clinically significant results, and the modern healthcare provider should be aware of CQI's importance for improving their healthcare delivery model.
Nursing, Allied Health, and Interprofessional Team Interventions
Specific goals for CQI projects can be developed through benchmarking, where performance is compared to similar institutions or core measures. Each goal should have metrics that are tracked to determine the outcomes of interventions. A successful CQI initiative is the result of a careful and thoughtful structured planning approach. For example, once clear goals have been established, various methodologies are possible for the development of interventions. Before implementing CQI, careful planning and "groundwork" needs to be done which may include articulating CQI goals, identifying specific clinical outcomes, and administrative outcomes for the organization's future state, evaluating current processes to identify what functions and does not function in the organization's current state, understanding how healthcare information technology can help your organization meet its goals, and developing a plan to collect data going forward and compare progress to benchmarks.
After this framework is set and the organization is 'fit' for CQI, then organizations can utilize CQI strategies.
Strategies for Interventions
Lean: Developed by Toyota Corporation, Lean methodology is a process of improving value to customers and employees with a focus on the reduction of waste. Kaizen is a core concept of lean and is concentrated on continual improvement. Lean defines 7 types of waste, i.e., transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects. The goal is to reduce the amount of non-value added activities, thereby increasing the amount of time and effort that is spent in value-added tasks.
Six Sigma: Developed at Motorola by Bill Smith in (1980), Six Sigma methodologies are focused on reducing error rates. Six Sigma refers to six standard deviations from the mean. If a process reaches Six Sigma, error rates should be less than 3.7/million opportunities. The process proceeds through 5 phases; define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC).
PDSA: Plan-Do-Study-Act, also known as the Deming cycle, is a four-step process for quality improvement. During the planning stage, objectives and desired outcomes are defined. The 'do' phase allows for the implementation of the plan from the first stage. During the 'study' phase, results are then gathered and studied to determine what effect the plan has had. Finally, during the 'act' stage, if the process has achieved the goal, it is then controlled to ensure continued compliance, or if it has failed to achieve the goal, a new PDSA cycle is implemented to adjust to better meet outcomes.
Baldrige Award Criteria: This methodology focuses on the improvement of the entire organization and instituting and nourishing a culture focused on CQI. It evolved from an award for organizational excellence through self-assessment into the methodology which has been implemented across the industry. The Baldridge Criteria focuses on enterprise-level improvement through improved communication, productivity, and effectiveness in seven categories, including leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement (including analysis and knowledge management), workforce focus, operations focus, and results. An important caveat to the Baldrige Criteria is that each of these seven criteria needs a champion in the organization to lead and manage improvement. This is because the Baldrige Criteria are suited for enterprise-level improvement rather than a single business or service entity.
It should be noted that no single CQI methodology, including Lean, Six Sigma, PDSA, and Baldrige, is thought to be superior to the other methodologies. Rather, the selection of a methodology should incorporate the goals of the organization, the feasibility of the data and other resources, the skill sets of those involved, and, ultimately, the strategy that best fits the organization.