Clinical Review

The Role of Process Improvements in Reducing Heart Failure Readmissions



Process of Process Improvement: Our Experiences

The previous sections outline a series of potential process improvements clinical teams and health systems can implement to impact heart failure readmissions. A plan on paper, however, does not equal a plan in actuality. How does one go about implementing these changes? We offer our local experience starting a heart failure transitional care program as a case study, then draw lessons learned as a set of practical tips for local teams to employ. What we hope to highlight is that there is a large difference between a completed process for transitional care of heart failure patients, and the process of developing that process itself. The former is the hardware, the latter is the software. The latter does not typically get highlighted, but it is absolutely critical to unlocking the capabilities of a team and the institution.

In 2015, Northwestern Memorial Hospital adopted a novel payment arrangement from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for Medicare patients being discharged from the hospital with heart failure. Known as Bundled Payments for Care Improvement,43 this bundled payment model incentivized Northwestern Memorial Hospital charge, principally by reducing hospital readmissions and by collaborating with skilled nursing facilities to control length of stay.

We approached this problem by drawing on the available literature,44,45 and by first creating a schematic of our high-level approach, which comprised 3 major elements (Figure 2): identification of hospitalized heart failure patients, delivery of a care bundle to hospitalized heart failure patients in hospital, and coordinating postdischarge care, centered on a telephone call and a postdischarge visit.

High-level schematic of an approach to heart failure readmissions reduction, the Northwestern Medicine Heart Failure Bridge and Transition team

We then proceeded by building out, in stepwise fashion, each component of our value chain, using Agile techniques as a guiding principle.46 Agile, a productivity and process improvement mindset with roots in software development, emphasizes tackling 1 problem at a time, building out new features sequentially and completely, recognizing that the end user does not derive value from a program until new functionality is available for use. Rather than wholesale monolithic change, Agile emphasizes rapid iteration, prototyping, and discarding innovations not found to be helpful. The notion is to stand up new, incremental features rapidly, with each incremental improvement delivering value and helping to accelerate overall change.

Our experience building a robust way to identify heart failure cases is a good example of Agile process improvement in practice. At our hospital, identification of patients with heart failure was a challenge because more than half of heart failure patients are admitted to noncardiology floors. We developed a simple electronic health record query to detect heart failure patients, relying on parameters such as administration of intravenous diuretic or levels of BNP exceeding 100 ng/dL. We deployed this query, finding very high sensitivity for detection of heart failure patients.14 Patients found to have heart failure were then populated into a list in the electronic health record, which made patients’ heart failure status visible to all members of the health care team. Using this list, we were able to automate several processes necessary for heart failure care. For example, the list made it possible for cardiologists to know if there was a patient who perhaps needed cardiology consultation. Nurse navigators could know which patients needed heart failure education without having to be actively consulted by the admitting team. The same nurse navigators could then know upon discharge which patients needed a follow-up telephone call at 48 hours.

This list of heart failure patients was the end product, which was built through prototyping and iteration. For example, with our initial BNP cutoff of 300 ng/dL, we recognized we were missing several cases, and lowered the cutoff for the screener to 100 ng/dL. When we were satisfied this process was working well, we moved on to the next problem to tackle, avoiding trying to work on too many things at once. By doing so, we were able to focus our process improvement resources on 1 problem at a time, building up a suite of interventions. For our hospital, we settled on a bundle of interventions, captured by the mnemonic HEART:

Heart doctor sees patient in the hospital

Education about heart failure in the hospital

After-visit summary with 7-day appointment printed

Reach out to the patient by telephone within 72 hours

Treat the patient in clinic by the 7-day visit


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