Monday, May 14, 2012

The unnoticed Crisis in Healthcare

[Post moved to other blog.]

This paper on solving the Quality of Care crisis in Healthcare, "An NTSB for Healthcare", made me wonder why nobody was talking about another long-running, endemic Crisis in Healthcare:
In trying to spend less, it costs more to provide less of a worse service.The more we try to cut costs, the more it will cost and there is no simple way out: the system is locked into this craziness.
Doing "more of the same" not only cannot break us out of the rut, it pushes us deeper into it
W. Edwards Deming, the person responsible for the Quality Improvement movement in Japan that also forced a revolution in manufacturing the United States in the 1980's, was very clear on this:
  • When people and organizations focus primarily on quality, defined by the ratio (Results of Work Effort / Total Effort), quality tends to increase and costs fall over time.
  • However, when people and organizations focus primarily on costs, costs tend to rise and quality declines over time.
Turning around any system spiralling out of control cannot be done by "more of the same", but needs careful attention to causes and the underlying systems. As Quality Improvement has repeatedly shown, focussing on "Doing Things Right First Time, Every Time", is a remarkably effective means of effecting even very large turn-arounds.

The definitive theoretical works on how this counter-intuitive effect presents in Computing, Virtual Memory "Thrashing", started in 1968 with the first paper on "Working Set" theory. It's not overstating the fact that without this work (theory + proof-in-practice) computers as we know them could not exist.

This is the counter-intuitive world that in Computing we call "Thrashing", in Catastrophe Theory a "tipping point" and in everyday parlance "past the point of no return" or "starting down a slippery slope". Even sometimes, "in a flat spin", meaning "with no way out".

These all occur when a system or thing is irreversibly pushed past a critical point or limit and then the rules of the game change. Much like stretching out the small spring from a retractable ballpoint pen renders it useless. It cannot be properly remade because the steel has been stretched permanently past its elastic limit. There's a different effect in "Memory Metals" which return to their original shape when heated, but you can't make springs out of them, only automobile body panels.

There are some other dynamic systems that most drivers are very aware of:
  • Overbraking leads to the tyres skidding as the friction melts the rubber and you're suddenly sliding on a thin film of liquid rubber. For drivers encountering this for the first time, the though of releasing the brakes, not pushing harder, is usually terrifying. "ABS" braking solves this by automatically releasing the brakes and re-applying them.
  • The opposite effect is high-powered cars spinning their wheels when accelerating. The wheels continue to slide until power is reduced enough to regain traction.
  • Cornering or swerving too fast, usually in slippery conditions like ice, mud or rain, results in some or all the wheels losing traction. There are no good recovery techniques for an all-wheel slide. When only the back wheels have lost traction, the classic "steer into the slide" technique works - which for those new to it, is usually counter-intuitive.
In all these situations, once "traction is lost", control is lost unless specific recovery measures are taken.
Once a rubber tyre starts to slide, it will continue to slide at that and previously tractable speeds.
Recovery isn't just a matter of reverting just a little, but often quite a lot until the rubber stops melting or sliding. Once traction is restored, it will again stay adhering until the critical limit is reached again. "Good car control" is often staying just below the critical limit and maintaining maximum friction without slipping.

The necessary ingredient to create a system which can sink into "Reversal of Command" type dysfunction is two opposing system response curves:
  • The "normal" response curve where increasing staff numbers (i.e.higher staff costs, more time per patient and more individual "slack" time) results in more throughput, but at the cost of lower "cost effectiveness" per patient, and
  • The "stressed" response curve, where low staff numbers creates higher absentee and sickness rates, increases Medical Errors and Adverse Events, increases staff-overtime for those able to work, increased time-pressure creates more stressed staff, reduces their job satisfaction and radically increases turn-over. Because the total demand for care has not reduced, extra staff have to be found: either through overtime, substitution of under-qualified staff or hiring expensive Agency staff. Overly tired staff not only work slower, but miscommunicate more, are worse at detecting errors and omissions  and make inordinately more clerical errors, requiring extra time to correct.
There is an Optimum Staff Cost point: the most cases are treated for the lowest staff costs.
Attempting to reduce staff costs below this point is counter-productive. The "stressed" response curve takes over and increases staff costs whilst the overworked staff produce significantly worse outcomes.

The problem with large Healthcare and Hospital systems, is that nobody is tracking the dysfunction curve, only the headline "staff costs".

Because these events go unnoticed and unreported, total System Costs are much higher than they need be.
But without measuring them, who's going to believe it?
And if you don't believe it, why would you measure?

Teams and Departments can suffer similar system breakdowns in their culture, as described in this: the "Blame Spiral".

The crucial point is that the "Do it Right, First Time" Quality Improvement methodology, because it is based in real measurement and relevant reporting, catches these issues early and prevents minor culture issues from descending into massive dysfunction.

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