MedCity Influencers, Hospitals

Healthcare quality professionals: The tie that binds our health system

It is clear that one key to improving the future of the U.S. healthcare system lies in putting the patient at the center of care and aligning around quality.

The current U.S. health system is overtaxed, under-aligned, and, despite best intentions, often oriented more around the provider than the patient. As we eventually move forward from a period of significant stress on all those serving on the front lines of care, there is significant opportunity to flip the script on how healthcare is provided.

The last 16 months have underscored an urgent mandate to place the patient more fully at the center of care. We must refocus around a common goal of providing the best care at the right time for the right patient with the right outcomes. But where can we find the perspective and skillsets necessary to unite our health system across all specializations, treatment settings, and patient communities?

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One answer represents a vital element in the future of the U.S. healthcare system: the quality professional. The healthcare quality professional’s commitment to delivering quality across all disciplines, settings, and processes is deeply linked with a commitment to putting the patient at the center of care.

Anatomy of a breakdown

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted pressure points on the structure and bandwidth of the U.S. health system. It served as a reminder that in too many cases, our system remains oriented around “sick care” rather than “health care.”

Areas that might work smoothly in an ideal state such as care transitions, communications, patient safety, and risk reporting were often disrupted by the pandemic. Many hospital workers were already putting in significant overtime to provide care and save lives even before the pandemic. Add a deadly virus to the equation and an already delicate system ends up severely overtaxed.

An additional example lies with certain defined populations such as city-bound younger generations that might prefer the transactional nature of urgent care clinics. When urgent care centers became hubs for Covid-19 response, that population became more vulnerable to missed check-ups or ignored symptoms, leading to even bigger issues.

A system built on just-in-time care, and without a foundational orientation around population health as opposed to an emphasis on individual patients, is ultimately unsustainable.

Quality in action

As part of an essential discipline in the healthcare field, the healthcare quality professional is the tie that binds. The very nature of their work requires these professionals to transcend boundaries and connect the dots, both at a macro and technical level. To see across the full spectrum of care, healthcare quality professionals must build a diversity of skillsets, a standard of excellence for the profession that the National Association for Healthcare Quality defines in its Healthcare Quality Competency Framework.

During the pandemic for example, quality professionals ensured procedures were in place to meet the ever-changing demands of hospitals, urgent care centers, and PCP offices. In those moments of heightened crisis, quality professionals were “in the trenches” to ensure systems were running smoothly and disparate players were effectively communicating with one another. Akin to a firefighter, quality professionals are trained to handle any issue that arises in the heat of the moment, from patient safety to project management to critical communications between health system silos.

Healthcare quality professional training translated equally well to the virtual setting, where quality professionals leveraged expertise across areas such as electronic communication and reporting, change management, and proper handling of confidential information. These unique skills allowed them to help each care environment keep patients at the center, even when those patients were not physically present.

It’s notable that quality professionals’ competencies are transferrable across healthcare systems and settings. Healthcare quality professionals bring value in every environment, with different strengths coming to light in distinct organizations. It may be a focus on population health in a community-based urgent care center for one quality professional, performance and process improvement in a hospital for another, or regulatory and accreditation across a large state-based system for yet another. But no matter the setting, fully trained healthcare quality professionals have a range of competencies to draw on when confronting a given organization’s specific context and challenges. These individuals also express strong leadership skills, leaning into crisis-management, facilitation, and communication between diverse stakeholders.

The future Is quality 

It is clear that one key to improving the future of the U.S. healthcare system lies in putting the patient at the center of care and aligning around quality. To successfully commit to a patient-centered approach, focusing on what each patient needs to turn sick care into health care, the system must further empower those ties that bind us together. Quality professionals have the training, orientation, and commitment to doing just that.

The good news is that the skills quality professionals bring to healthcare are being increasingly recognized across the industry. According to a Q2 2021 pulse survey conducted by NAHQ, more than half (51%) of surveyed professionals said they believed that their role as a healthcare quality professional is perceived by their organization to be more valuable now compared to the previous year. Quality professionals are being called on to lead like never before and those leadership skills will be critical as we achieve healthcare goals in the future. Not only that, but these quality leaders understand that workforce development will be a critical success factor. In fact, 69% of those surveyed said that demonstrating quality and safety competencies and skills would be more valuable to their organization in the next six to 12 months.

But perhaps the most heartening statistic relates to the enthusiasm of these professionals to engage in this vital work. Eighty-four percent of surveyed quality professionals said they were very or somewhat happy, engaged, and energized at work. This bodes well for the ability of this important group to make meaningful, lasting change wherever they apply their skills and patient-centric perspectives.

Patricia Kirkpatrick is the Director of Quality Management for Prospero Health, where she leads quality and performance improvement programming for a serious illness medical care provider serving patients in their homes in twenty-six states. She currently serves as a secretary/treasurer and board member for the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ) and a member of the Steering Committee for NashvilleHealth. She is also a co-author of two US Patents related to the integration of virtual and medical group care delivery.

Stephanie Mercado is the CEO and Executive Director of National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ), an organization dedicated to healthcare quality professionals, defining the standard of excellence for the profession. She has led association leadership roles, supporting both practitioners and healthcare executives for 20 years, developing healthcare competencies and medical curriculum models.

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