Alberta a leader in ‘curing’ wait times

ABJHI Archive

From The Chronicle Herald:

Sometimes public health care is like the human body. When you have an ailment in one area, you need to look somewhere else in the anatomy for the cause or the contributor. Long wait times for hip and knee replacements are an example. Cause: not enough surgeries to keep up with demand from an aging population. Well, that’s part of the problem.

We also know that, in Alberta, many patients stay in hospital longer than the four-day provincial benchmark for hip and knee surgeries. Evidence suggests that often, it’s because the patient, who is medically ready to go home, has not arranged for someone to help with recovery at home or feels more secure surrounded by hospital staff.

But every hour an acute-care bed remains occupied by a recovering patient who doesn’t really need it is an hour that bed cannot be occupied by another patient who needs a new hip or knee.

Alberta Bone and Joint Health Institute, having developed the four-day standard using international evidence, crunched the hospital stay numbers for the Bone and Joint Clinical Network (BJCN) of Alberta Health Services (AHS). We found that in 2009-10, patients who had elective or planned hip replacement spent on average an extra 1.2 days in hospital, while knee-replacement patients stayed an extra three-quarters of a day.

Cumulatively, this means that about 16,000 bed-days would have been freed up had the average stay in acute care followed the standard. If these beds had been available for hip- and knee-replacement patients, it would have opened up capacity for another 4,000 surgeries. More surgeries mean shorter wait lists and wait times without incurring incremental costs.

The answer seems obvious: apply the four-day standard.

But health care decision-making is, by necessity, decentralized. Frontline staff in every orthopedic unit across the province make local decisions, such as keeping a patient in acute care for an extra day, often without being aware or informed of the broader “system” impact.

So AHS devised an experiment in 2010-11 using non-financial incentives to get frontline staff across the province engaged in applying the four-day benchmark. The BJCN co-ordinated the clinical, operational and strategic aspects. Multidisciplinary teams — surgeons, nurses, therapists and managers — were formed at 12 hospitals where hip and knee surgery is performed. Each team set out to reduce patient stay to the benchmark while also striving for other creative ways to improve performance.

Teams tracked their progress on a scorecard, met monthly for review, and shared results with other teams, creating an undercurrent of competition. Patients were managed more closely to ensure that they had a plan for coping at home after surgery. Those not medically ready to leave hospital, but not at risk, were moved into sub-acute care.

The experiment produced an impressive annualized savings of almost 11,000 acute-care bed-days and was quickly adopted by AHS as a permanent program.

Preliminary results for 2011-12 suggest more than 13,500 bed-days have been saved, opening up bed capacity to potentially perform an extra 3,375 hip and knee replacements.

A portion of the savings in resources was pumped back into hip- and knee-replacement services, where the teams could see the impact of their success.

AHS added 1,080 hip and knee replacements to its planned volumes in 2011-12. Importantly, the cost of these surgeries was partly offset by the efficiencies from the reduced acute-care stay.

Today, AHS is seeing its wait times for hip and knee surgery decline steadily. Part of the success is rooted in giving frontline health professionals the means and incentives to participate directly in meeting the four-day benchmark. And part of the success comes from having moved to a single province-wide health care agency, which actually facilitates implementing provincial programs like this one.

Over the next few years, incremental surgery volumes, together with the additional surgical capacity produced by freeing up beds, should enable AHS to meet its ultimate target of a maximum 14-week wait in 2014-15 for an elective hip or knee replacement.

Public health care suffers from many ailments, but as Canada’s premiers recognized when they formed their Health Care Innovation Working Group in January, it also brims with opportunities if you look in the right places.

Cy Frank is an expert adviser with and the executive director of Alberta Bone and Joint Health Institute.