The healthcare industry, which faces more financial and regulatory pressure than ever before, is a prime target for the application of Six Sigma methodology.

Many leaders within healthcare are beginning to see the improvements the methodology can bring to their operations. A recent example comes from South Florida, where a cancer center at the University of Miami has seen positive results from implementing Six Sigma.

The initiative has not only made short-term gains, but also instituted a new long-term outlook at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the university’s Miller School of Medicine.

Lauren Gjolaj, MBA, BSN, RN and director of clinical operations at the center, told Oncology Nursing News that Six Sigma has not only helped fix current problems but also created “long-term, sustainable solutions.”

She added that “creating collaborative solutions that make it better for everyone are the keys to success.”

Oncology Nursing Challenges

Gjolaj is an oncology nurse, a profession that offers both rewards and challenges.

Nurses who work in oncology have a close relationship with cancer patients, as well as their families and caregivers. In addition to providing treatment for patients, they educate them on managing their condition. The job also requires a healthy dose of support and encouragement for those facing one of the toughest times of their lives.Oncology nurse

They also must frequently monitor a patient’s conditions and coordinate their cancer treatments. They typically serve as the “middle person” between patients and doctors, relaying information between the two.

One of the key issues with cancer patients is that they face sudden, potentially life-threatening events. Prompt medical treatment can often mean the difference between life and death. One of the areas where improvements can be made is cutting down the wait times for cancer patients who arrive at a hospital with neutropenic fever.

That’s why Gjolaj and her team focused on this area, applying Six Sigma tools and techniques.

Cutting Down Intervention Time

Six Sigma tools such as the Five Whys help organizations identify areas where errors are occurring in a process and then perform root cause analysis to find what needs to be changed or eliminated. The team in South Florida followed a similar path.

They focused on cutting down the time it took between patients with neutropenic fever entering an emergency unit and getting intravenous antibiotics. The project required a collaborative effort from people in many different departments. But eventually a systematic, Six Sigma-driven approach paid off.

The center first gave patients a neutropenic fever alert card that they could present to medical workers when they entered the hospital. They also added a question on the emergency room sign-in sheet to give patients an opportunity to identify neutropenic fever.

They then formed a neutropenic fever alert system and created a team to quickly respond when such a patient was identified.

Gjolaj credits the changes with saving hundreds of lives. The team that created the system also won two awards: Overall Showcase and Greatest Customer Impact at the 2017 Florida Sterling Conference Team Showcase competition.

Cutting Wait Times

The University of Miami medical team used the same approach when addressing long wait times in oncology units.

They cut the wait time for laboratory results by 53% and overall wait time by 26%. The results: more satisfied patients.

Gjolaj said breaking the silos that exist in so many organizations is one of the keys to success with Six Sigma. She offered some tips on how to approach process improvement in healthcare, including:

  • Picking a change that will impact patients
  • Mapping out the process
  • Getting input from the customers and stakeholders
  • Forming teams with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives
  • Defining clearly what you want to improve
  • Defining clearly the steps you need to take
  • Completing the steps and track the results, making changes as needed

The success at the University of Miami cancer center is one among many in recent years involving healthcare and Six Sigma.

Healthcare and Six Sigma

A recent study from HealthLeaders Media Patient Experience Survey reported that 87% of healthcare organizations that implemented process improvements saw major improvements in scores given to them by patients.

One example of this is from Boston-based Shields Healthcare Group, which used Six Sigma practices in developing a healthcare software system that works across different departments, facilitates communication and meets the different needs of departments within a medical operation.

In an environment with more regulation and financial pressures, healthcare organizations are increasingly finding that process improvement and Six Sigma are helping them not only survive, but thrive.

Gjolaj has become a believer not only in using Six Sigma at the cancer center, but in sharing its best practices among other healthcare organizations. She said, “I would like to continue to spread awareness and share our best practices with the other cancer centers and hospitals to expand the lives saved.”

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