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What Is Lean Healthcare?

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  • Written By: Jan Fletcher
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Lean healthcare is the application of lean manufacturing principles to healthcare delivery. The goal of any lean operation is twofold: reducing the amount of time spent on unnecessary activities and reducing defects in the production of goods or provision of services. Lean healthcare distinguishes between value-added and non-value-added activities and procedures, with an aim to eliminate those that add no value.

An example of an activity that adds value in lean healthcare is providing life-sustaining care to an injured person. That example can be compared to a nurse who spends 15 minutes looking for surgical supplies that were not in the proper place. That is a non-value added activity, because time spent looking for supplies adds nothing of value to patient care. In lean manufacturing, strong efforts are made to avoid defects in manufacturing through quality-control measures. Applying this principle in healthcare is considered critical to lowering mortality rates and reducing the occurrence of unintended injuries to patients.

There are major differences when applying lean principles to a healthcare setting. A hospital with sick or injured patients is a vastly different work environment from a smoothly operating factory running on a strict production timetable. In a factory, it is a relatively simple task to give directions and expect compliance to procedures that aim to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

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In a healthcare setting, even though workers are trained to anticipate a patient’s needs, medical situations can arise without regard to a timetable or schedule. Healthcare workers also are expected to be compassionate and attentive to patients, bringing a human touch to healthcare. This is why few patients would want a strict application of lean manufacturing principles applied to a patient-care setting. The goal in lean healthcare is to preserve compassion while still reducing variance in procedures and eliminating unnecessary activities.

This goal is accomplished through helping healthcare providers understand the difference between internal and primary processes and then training staff members to look at internal processes with an eye toward eliminating waste. For example, one internal process is the way in which a storage area is organized. On the other hand, a primary process would be the bedside care of a patient experiencing pain.

The storage area might have historically served a purpose directly related to patient care in the past, but over time, it has become a catchall for furniture or tools that are not frequently used. If a hospital has few of these rooms, the overall impact on a lean operation might be minimal. If there are many such areas, however, the impact could be significant. If such waste occurs on an even larger scale, a hospital board might approve spending the money necessary to expand the facility’s infrastructure, because of the perception that there is not sufficient space to care for patients. A lean healthcare strategy would look at first reclaiming wasted space, thus saving a significant capital outlay.

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