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Driving nurse excellence and engagement will be essential to delivering on patient satisfaction and experience.
By Sara Heath
– When it comes to nurse engagement, efforts must go a lot further than just driving good job satisfaction. In fact, nurse excellence isn’t entirely about the nurses at all, although they are important. Instead, nurse engagement is an essential means to yield an overall positive patient experience, connecting all of the key elements of healthcare into one cohesive picture.
The call for good patient experiences is not something new. Healthcare has long valued the patient, striving for excellent bedside manner and good clinical quality outcomes. But in an age where healthcare consumerism reigns supreme and CMS reimbursements hinge on good satisfaction scores, driving that positive hospital experience has become even more crucial.
But building that experience is extremely nuanced, most industry experts can appreciate. A good patient experience requires a balance of certain hospitality elements, patient safety, and meaningful interactions between patients and staff.
And that’s hard, experts say. Hospitals only have so many resources to dedicate to facility amenities and clinicians are strapped for time, seriously hindering their ability to connect with patients on a personal level. Patient safety, although essential to clinical quality outcomes, can falter to human error in the most unfortunate cases, despite best efforts. Communicating those lapses then present a whole new challenge.
But those challenges aren’t insurmountable, especially when nurses are engaged. These clinicians are on the frontlines of everything ranging from patient interactions to medical care. So, when nurses thrive, everything else thrives, too, according to Christy Dempsey, DNP, MSN, MBA, CNOR, CENP, FAAN, the chief nursing officer at healthcare consulting firm, Press Ganey.
“A culture of nursing excellence really does impact everything,” Dempsey said in a recent interview with PatientEngagementHIT. “If you have a good culture of nursing excellence, then you’re more likely to have better physician engagement. You’re more likely to see that patient experience of their physicians, not just of the nurses, is better. Clinical quality is better. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats in healthcare.”
As noted above, nursing excellence looks like a lot more than just good job perks and satisfaction, although those factors can be important. Instead, nursing excellence is about developing and advancing strong nurse leaders, who are then able to advocate for their patients and nurse peers.
“Nursing excellence requires a structure within the organization that supports shared governance so that nurses at every level are helping and involved in making decisions, measuring transparency of data, and establishing performance benchmarks and promoting autonomy for nurses inside that shared governance framework,” Dempsey explained.
Nurturing a culture of provider teamwork and implementing care frameworks that emphasize not just clinical quality, but safety and patient experience as well, is another key hallmark of nursing excellence.
But although the industry has a good model of what nursing excellence is – strong team-based care that gives all stakeholders the tools to succeed – it isn’t always happening.
“We are in an environment that is constantly changing. It’s complex in terms of the patients and the venues, the continuum of care,” Dempsey said. “There are a lot of pressures within healthcare today.”
But it’s those very factors that hamper efforts for nurse excellence that nurse engagement and empowerment can solve. When nurses are empowered, Dempsey maintained, the patient can thrive because the team can thrive.
“Even in today’s complex, constantly changing healthcare environment, that culture of nursing excellence can be fostered, promoted, and then impact everything else that happens in healthcare,” Dempsey asserted.
Healthcare organizations on a journey to nurse excellence need to start where they are today. Understanding their current competency in patient safety, nurse experience, and clinical quality and experience will be important for understanding the root causes of any underperformance they see in their facility, Dempsey instructed.
From there, organizations can design a path forward.
“Define what the nursing professional practice model in your practice is,” Dempsey said. “Once you have determined that, you’ve got to make sure that you have CEO and board support for that model and that the chief nursing officers and nursing leadership are involved in executive level decision making at the C suite and the board level.”
A nursing shared governance that included nurse managers and engages bedside nurses will help organizations build their accountability structure, leading nurses and other stakeholders to take ownership of the process. Stakeholders should also play a hand in writing out job descriptions, performance reviews, and standards for clinical practice.
After that, teams must scale that plan organization-wide.
“You need to establish a communication plan so that you are able to disseminate information and initiatives that help you drive towards nursing excellence,” Dempsey said. “You must have an organizational strategy for data transparency in how you talk about the data. You can’t just post it on the wall. How do you talk about the data and wrap stories around that data to make it come to life? Then, look at the specific work unit information and communication strategies.”
All of this must lead to an optimized work environment, Dempsey continued. Work environment, or the factors that make a job doable and even enjoyable, is even more important that staffing levels, Dempsey reported.
“Optimizing that nursing work environment is so important,” she said. “That includes the leadership development plan, how you are engaging nurses and fostering their development, and how you are providing incentives for professional development.”
Organizations must also assess how they are assuring they have the appropriate resources – both human and material – and emotional support for nurses. This will allow nurses to continue efforts for patient-centered care.
“Make sure that you’re optimizing staffing so that you have the right people taking care of the right patients in the right place at the right time,” Dempsey stated.
“Then, finally, track integrated metrics, so reducing silos both in terms of operations, but also in terms of the way we look at data,” she continued. “Integrate that data so that you can see things and how things move together — or don’t. This will help you draw insights from that integrated data and then build improvement plans, and accountability and ownership plans based on that integrated data.”
All of this will hinge on a culture of team-based care. The organizations that Dempsey sees fully committed to a culture of excellence are already deploying strong team-based care strategies, fostering collaboration, communication, and support across the team. This is a symbiotic relationship, she said, because the culture of excellence also draws on the whole hospital team.
And at the end of the day, that is what will help organizations push to the next level in value-based and patient-centered care.
“Driving nursing excellence is not just a good idea, it makes good fiscal sense,” Dempsey concluded. “It makes good sense to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. It is the rising tide that will help health care. We need to really promote that.”
1. The Streetlight Effect and Measuring What Matters
It was dark and a man lost his keys. He searches for them under a streetlight, and a friend comes over to help. Eventually, the friend asks, “Are you sure you lost your keys here?” The man says, “No. I lost them in the park.” So the friend asks, “Why are we looking here?” The man answers, “Because this is where the light is.”
This story describes a form of observational bias called the streetlight effect, in which we look for things where it’s easy, not where it’s important.
“I would argue that we do this all the time in health care measurement,” says Ari Robicsek, Chief Medical Analytics Officer for Providence St. Joseph Health.
Every hospital measures length of stay, for example, and many use this measure as a surrogate catch-all for quality and efficiency. “But let me ask, who really cares about length of stay?” says Robicsek. “Is it patients? Is that the first metric that comes to mind when a patient is thinking about hospital quality? Is it doctors? Probably not. Is it administrators? Even from an administrative point of view, you’re not going to realize the financial benefit of reduced length of stay, unless at the same time you reduce labor, or you find ways to fill those empty beds with paying customers, which is a much more complex measure than simply looking at length of stay.”
Length of stay may not be a great measure, but if we have to start somewhere with health care measurement, what’s the harm in tracking it? “If we assign resources to working on the wrong problem, those resources aren’t working on the right problem,” warns Robicsek.
Additionally, with length of stay specifically, a big push to get patients out the door risks sending them home before they’re ready — and when that happens, those patients may end up with complications and get readmitted. “We see one streetlight metric, length of stay, giving birth to another streetlight metric, 30-day readmissions, and so on,” he says.
“My modest proposal: We should measure the things that matter,” says Robicsek. “Yes, sometimes that’s going to mean that we need to collect data differently than the way we do today, or, said another way, sometimes we’re going to have to put up some lights in the park.”
2. Balancing Risk Adjustment
Robicsek shares a map showing distribution of glycemic control in diabetic patients on Chicago’s North Shore, where green is good and red is bad. The map overlays closely with an income map.
If we set up a bonus program for primary care doctors where they receive more money if their patients have better glycemic control, it’s easy to guess where most physicians will want to practice. This is why we need risk adjustment.
“Absent good risk adjustment, physicians working in disadvantage geographies are going to have the worst-looking outcomes,” Robicsek explains. “They’re going to get paid less. The poor get poorer, etc. Absent good risk adjustment, physicians are going to have an incentive to cherry-pick, that is, focus on the patients who are going to make them look good.”
“But with good risk adjustment, we have the opportunity to identify those providers who are outperforming expectations, who are doing a great job with the difficult-to-manage patients, and we can learn from them.”
There are disadvantages to risk adjustment, however, when done poorly. The most common problem is doing little more than creating the illusion that risk adjustment has occurred. “A lot of the risk adjustment models in use are lousy, including some of the ones used by CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services),” Robicsek says. “I would argue that those do very little other than creating the patina of fairness, and I would argue when that happens, we’ve probably done more harm than good with risk adjustment.”
Another concern is that sometimes risk adjustment can justify outcome disparities that are amenable to management. A blood-pressure management metric risk-adjusted on race, for example, could remove the incentive for physicians to determine how to manage blood pressure in African-American patients, perversely promoting or entrenching existing inequalities.
“My proposal here: For every new measure that we build, we need to have a conversation about what amount of risk adjustment is enough,” says Robicsek.
3. Measuring to Learn
How much is enough? When we can learn from the measure, he explains. “So much of the health care measurement that we do is for the purpose of rank-ordering or some form of reward or punishment. I would argue that most of the measurement that we do should be taking into account the fact that, as humans, we’re curious and we’re altruistic — most of it should be to learn.”
In a graph of total knee replacement at Providence St. Joseph Health, each circle represents one high-volume orthopedic surgeon. Each of these surgeons performs high volumes of elective primary unilateral total knee replacement, and they all have great outcomes. But the difference between them is cost.
Every circle above the line represents a surgeon whose cost per case is high. Every circle below represents a surgeon who cost per case is low relative to their colleagues.
Are the doctors low on implant costs consistently low across other elements of care? Not necessarily. “In medicine, variation is the state of nature,” says Robicsek. “There are almost no clinicians who are consistently high cost, or consistently low cost across these elements of care. My takeaway from this is that we all have an opportunity to learn from each other.”
“My modest proposal: Most of the health care measurement that we do should not be for reward or punishment. It should be to learn.”
4. Whose Patient Is It?
Providence recently evaluated OPPE (Ongoing Professional Practice Evaluation), which the health system uses, and found that it was assigning 40% of hospital patients to the wrong doctor. “Who can blame them?” Robicsek asks. “It’s easy in a hospitalization for a patient to have three different, or five different, attendings of record. How do you know who to assign that patient to?”
“In a world where we’re measuring for reward and punishment, we feel obligated to assign one outcome or one hospitalization to a single clinician, but imagine if we were able to move away from that and we were measuring to learn,” he says. “Then we would have the ability to do things like ignore who the provider was and ask ourselves what specific elements of care, what specific combinations of behaviors, lead to the best outcomes.”
“Or we could recognize that medicine is a team sport,” he adds. “Let’s ask the question, can we tie outcomes to teams rather than to individuals? My modest proposal here: We practice in teams. Let’s recognize that in the way we measure.”
5. Metrics Aren’t Free
“To anyone who has ever said, ‘Let’s just add one more thing to this dashboard’: Metrics are not free.”
“Every time we build the metric, if it is done correctly, somebody needs to build business specs, technical specs. Someone needs to do data governance, coding. Somebody needs to do validation, automation, documentation, visualization, and then somebody needs to maintain the thing moving forward. Easily that’s a cost of $10,000,” says Robicsek.
6. The “Give a Darn” Test for Health Care Measurement
When measuring what matters, how do we know what that is? Robicsek describes a thought experiment where he sits with a small group of physicians considering a metric. “Imagine I told you that you’re doing better than your colleague on this measure,” he says to them. “Would you feel good about yourself? Imagine I told you you’re doing worse than your colleagues on this measure. Would you feel motivated to change your practice?”
“If the answer to both of those questions is not yes, let’s not build this measure. It’s not worth our time. We’ll go focus on something else.”
“Sitting at the front of this room is my partner in crime, Dr. Caleb Stowell, looking like the cat who ate the canary. He’s showing [the surgeons] the results of the process that I’ve described. They’re measuring to learn. He’s identified a measure that passes the ‘give a darn’ test for them, and some of those surgeons are literally leaning in. I work for 51-hospital system, but where this change happens, where you win hearts and minds, is in rooms like this.”
Robicsek’s final proposal: Try the “give a darn” test for health care measurement. And note that in many “give-a-darn” conversations, one metric that comes up as incredibly important to physicians is patient-reported outcomes.
From the NEJM Catalyst event Provider-Driven Data Analytics to Improve Outcomes, held at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, January 31, 2019.