Safety-net hospitals turn to lean manufacturing to improve care, reduce costs

In an effort to reduce costs and increase patient satisfaction, some public hospitals now follow the lead of their private counterparts and adopt "lean" strategies modeled after Toyota's production system.

Although private hospitals have used lean strategies for years to target inefficiency and areas for quality improvement, the model is relatively untested in safety-net providers, which are under increased pressure to keep patients satisfied as they gain coverage under the Affordable Care Act, KQED News reports

The California HealthCare Foundation helped fund lean projects at Los Angeles County Harbor-UCLA, as well as four Bay Area nonprofit hospitals, with Toyota offering consultant services free of charge through its nonprofit division, according to the article. Hospitals used the technique to change the way they schedule surgeries, discharge patients and store equipment. The programs already show positive results, the foundation said. For example, San Mateo Medical Center saved nearly half a million dollars by reducing the number of its surgery cancellations.

The automotive and healthcare settings are surprisingly similar, Toyota advisor Toshi Kitamura told the publication. For example, both industries need to have ready access to equipment and materials. One strategy that UCLA-Harbor adopted addressed clutter and disorganization in supply closets to reduce the time operating room staff spent looking for necessary supplies. Similar efforts sped up operations at the hospital's outpatient eye clinic, cutting the average patient time in the clinic by about half.

The streamlined process is critical, according to Susan Black, who oversees the lean strategies at UCLA-Harbor. "We have a real need to do better, to do more, improve our access and do it for less," she told the publication. "That is part of our survival."

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