As a young person growing up in Washington, DC in the late 60s and early 70s, I was immersed in the importance of changing the system. My father was a lawyer and my mother a social worker. My family placed a strong emphasis on taking responsibility for making things better. Several years later, when I decided to go to medical school in New York City to train at Bellevue Hospital, I wanted to experience medicine in one of the country’s biggest urban public hospitals. During medical school, I also decided to join the National Health Service Corps as a way to provide service.
Fresh out of residency, I was eager to put into practice all that I had learned. However, I wasn’t able to start my work in Corps in Rochester, New York immediately. I found a position with the Elmwood Pediatric Group while I waited for my service to begin. After I began my service, I continued to spend parts of days and weekends at the Elmwood Group.
There was a striking difference in the environment of the private practice and the neighborhood clinic. At the clinic, appointments were scheduled twice a day in blocks, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Mothers and children waited for hours in a cramped waiting room devoid of pictures or toys. At the Elmwood Group, we saw many more patients, equally complicated cases, in a schedule that ran on time. At Elmwood, I would see poor kids with asthma whose disease I could manage much more effectively than I could at the health center because it was easier to develop an effective relationship with patients in a system that ran efficiently and that communicated a sense of caring. In short, I was struck by my inability to produce the same outcomes (even though I was the same person) working in two different systems. It was simply unavoidable that my effectiveness as a clinician depended on the system in which I was working.
I also discovered that by focusing on what patients need and want, I could change the system. After I was named director of pediatrics at the clinic, I took what I learned about efficient office operations at the private practice, did some reading about queuing theory and succeeded in implementing a scheduling system that improved the experience for patients and increased the number of children for whom we cared by about 50%, with no increase in staff, while reducing the number of no-shows. From this experience, I also learned that changing the system affected not only the patients but also the doctors caring for them. It was so much more satisfying for all the physicians to see patients in a system that ran efficiently, communicating to our patients that we respected their time.
My appreciation for the importance of the healthcare delivery system deepened when Corps transferred me to a storefront clinic the south central neighborhood of Los Angeles. By the time I left Rochester, I had realized that I needed to have more skills than I had learned in medical school if I was going to change the system. I wasn’t hesitant to share my “big ideas” for better healthcare delivery with my partners of the Elmwood Group. One evening after work, one of them put his arm on my shoulder and said, “don’t become one of those researchers who just studies why those of us in practice don’t use evidence or don’t provide the best care for our patients. You better figure out how to be useful.”
This was a defining moment. Over the past 20 years, I have studied and learned about how to use and apply improvement science and systems engineering to enable doctors, nurses and, now patients work together to make health care the best it can be, applying the knowledge we have today, and discovering and creating innovations that will make care better tomorrow. That’s why I’m proud to be part of the ImproveCareNow Network.