Population health management: How lean manufacturing principles can drive improvement

Start by "freeing people to ask why," expert says

The same lean principles that help healthcare systems improve care delivery and cost can also manage population health, says the CEO of the not-for-profit ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Some community clinics and population health leaders have started using lean principles, John Toissaint, M.D., wrote in Hospital & Health Networks. Lean manufacturing principles have helped hospitals cut emergency department wait times and significantly improve patient satisfaction without increasing costs, among other improvements.

But much more can be done, he said. One way lean can drive the effort is by "freeing people to ask why," Toissant wrote."Repeatedly asking this simple question helps lean leaders identify the cause and begin the plan-do-study-act cycle of testing improvements."

He said critical questions for population health include: 

• Why do chronic populations struggle with managing care?
• Why don't we connect people to more services to get them the care they need?
• Why do we let existing barriers stand in our way?

"Imagine the flood of innovation that might sweep through population health organizations if leaders and frontline staff felt empowered to ask these types of questions and then search for lean-based solutions," Toissant wrote.

Lean processes also can connect healthcare system to communities to set a shared vision, give patients a voice and involve them in the process, and connect data and metrics to identify better-targeted solutions, according to the opinion piece.