A Hospital Is Not Just a Factory, but a Complex Adaptive System—Implications for Perioperative Care

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Abstract

Many methods used to improve hospital and perioperative services productivity and quality of care have assumed that the hospital is essentially a factory, and therefore, that industrial engineering and manufacturing-derived redesign approaches such as Six Sigma and Lean can be applied to hospitals and perioperative services just as they have been applied in factories. However, a hospital is not merely a factory but also a complex adaptive system (CAS). The hospital CAS has many subsystems, with perioperative care being an important one for which concepts of factory redesign are frequently advocated. In this article, we argue that applying only factory approaches such as lean methodologies or process standardization to complex systems such as perioperative care could account for difficulties and/or failures in improving performance in care delivery. Within perioperative services, only noncomplex/low-variance surgical episodes are amenable to manufacturing-based redesign. On the other hand, complex surgery/high-variance cases and preoperative segmentation (the process of distinguishing between normal and complex cases) can be viewed as CAS-like. These systems tend to self-organize, often resist or react unpredictably to attempts at control, and therefore require application of CAS principles to modify system behavior. We describe 2 examples of perioperative redesign to illustrate the concepts outlined above. These examples present complementary and contrasting cases from 2 leading delivery systems. The Mayo Clinic example illustrates the application of manufacturing-based redesign principles to a factory-like (high-volume, low-risk, and mature practice) clinical program, while the Kaiser Permanente example illustrates the application of both manufacturing-based and self-organization–based approaches to programs and processes that are not factory-like but CAS-like. In this article, we describe how factory-like processes and CAS can coexist within a hospital and how self-organization–based approaches can be used to improve care delivery in many situations where manufacturing-based approaches may not be appropriate.

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