It’s difficult to tell this story. It’s a story of failure and disappointment. It’s about letting people down. I only have the courage to tell it now because it is also a story of learning and inspiration. I think it will have a happy ending.
The tenacious few who have followed this blog from the beginning know that it started as a record of Saskatoon Urology Associates’ work to improve patient access to specialist consultation. Starting in 2007, with support from the Health Quality Council, we learned about, and applied the Model for Improvement. We implemented pooled referrals (centralized referral intake), reduced our missed appointment rate, and requested standardized referral information from family physicians. We discovered the ubiquity of practice variation in our group, began to discuss the reasons behind variation, and then agreed on best practices.
At its nadir, our average consultation wait time was one month – down from 4 months or longer. Even though we never reached our original target of 2 weeks, we were very pleased with the process and results. Then, circumstances changed. Wait times ballooned. The frustration that sparked our work in the first place was back.
Our urologist manpower has changed significantly. Early in our improvement work, we had 8 full-time urologists. Due to retirement and semi-retirement, we now have 6.5 full-time urologists.
How we distribute work has changed over the last 3 years. The Saskatchewan Surgical Initiative has focused attention on surgical wait times, that is, the time patients wait from being booked to having the procedure performed. The initiative has been hugely successful in reducing the surgical backlog. And how do you reduce a backlog? Hard work, i.e. more surgeons in the operating room more often. This has taken us away from seeing patients for office consultation. Predictably, our patients’ wait time for surgery has dropped, but wait time for consultation has burgeoned.
We’ve seen this happening over the last 2 years. It meant that we started to see (again!) all the phenomenon that go along with long wait times: more calls from patients and referring physicians, referring physicians sending repeat consult requests detailing worsening of patient symptoms, and more urologist effort into triaging consultation requests. Long wait lists make more work for everyone. Most disheartening are the comments from family physician colleagues: What happened to you guys? I used to tell my patients that you had done such a good job of reducing your wait times. Now I don’t know what to tell them about how long they’ll wait to see you!
We were frustrated by the poor service we were providing to patients and referring physicians. We regularly griped to each other about it. The situation was very similar to the one we found ourselves in back in 2007 when we started our improvement work. The difference now was this: We knew that positive change was possible. We had experienced the Model for Improvement and had success with it. We knew we weren’t powerless. And so, last October, our docs got together to document our concerns.
Rather than jump back into the game with the sole goal of reducing our consultation wait times, however, we decided to look at all the areas of our practice that we were dissatisfied with. Each urologist recorded 2 or 3 problems on sticky notes that we grouped into themes. We did a second round of this after major themes had been identified.
It was a long list with some of the main themes being:
- workload/workflow processes
- human resources (lack thereof)
- quality improvement
- partner communication
- office practice management
But, the biggest thing to come out of that meeting was an agreement that we wanted to revitalize our quality improvement commitment and that we needed help to do it. We needed someone to show us how to get back on track and how to create a sustainable system of improvement. We needed a quality improvement coach.
We hired one! And that starts a new chapter in this story.
P.S. Thanks to Greg, Kunal and Katherine for encouraging me to start telling our story again – warts and all.