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BMJ Qual Saf. 2017 May;26(5):388-394. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2016-005438. Epub 2016 Jul 27.

Six ways not to improve patient flow: a qualitative study.

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Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Health Systems Performance, George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.



Although well-established principles exist for improving the timeliness and efficiency of care, many organisations struggle to achieve more than small-scale, localised gains. Where care processes are complex and include segments under different groups' control, the elegant solutions promised by improvement methodologies remain elusive. This study sought to identify common design flaws that limit the impact of flow initiatives.


This qualitative study was conducted within an explanatory case study of a Canadian regional health system in which multitudinous flow initiatives had yielded no overall improvement in system performance. Interviews with 62 senior, middle and departmental managers, supplemented by ∼700 documents on flow initiatives, were analysed using the constant comparative method.


Findings suggested that smooth flow depends on linking a defined population to appropriate capacity by means of an efficient process; flawed initiatives reflected failure to consider one or more of these essential elements. Many initiatives focused narrowly on process, failing to consider that the intended population was poorly defined or the needed capacity inaccessible; some introduced capacity for an intended population, but offered no process to link the two. Moreover, interveners were unable to respond effectively when a bottleneck moved to another part of the system. Errors of population, capacity and process, in different combinations, generated six 'formulae for failure'.


Typically, flawed initiatives focused on too small a segment of the patient journey to properly address the impediments to flow. The proliferation of narrowly focused initiatives, in turn, reflected a decentralised system in which responsibility for flow improvement was fragmented. Thus, initiatives' specific design flaws may have their roots in a deeper problem: the lack of a coherent system-level strategy.


Emergency department; Health services research; Process mapping; Qualitative research; Quality improvement

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