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Hospital Strategies to Engage Physicians in Quality Improvement

Hospitals Compete Against Physicians' Time/Financial Pressures for Involvement

News Release
Oct. 15, 2009

Alwyn Cassil (202) 264-3484 or

WASHINGTON, DC—While physicians are essential to hospital quality improvement efforts, competing time and financial pressures pose hurdles to physician participation, according to a study released today by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

Although hospitals have long engaged in quality improvement activities, they continue to face escalating demands to participate in a wide range of quality improvement and reporting programs. Many hospitals historically have relied on the voluntary medical staff model to solicit physician participation—a model generally premised on a loose affiliation between hospitals and community-based physicians. However, as more services shift to outpatient settings and physicians confront quality-of-life issues and financial stresses, physicians feel less obligated to volunteer time for hospital activities, including quality improvement, according to the study.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study included interviews with hospital leaders in Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle and identified hospital strategies to involve physicians in quality improvement activities, including employing physicians; using credible data to identify areas needing improvement; providing visible hospital leadership support; identifying and nurturing physician champions to help engage their peers; and communicating the importance of physicians’ contributions.

"Many physicians are spending less time in hospitals and increasingly are reticent about voluntarily giving their time to hospitals, so finding effective ways to engage physicians in quality improvement is an important challenge for hospitals," said Debra A. Draper, Ph.D., HSC associate director and coauthor of the study with Allison Liebhaber, a former HSC health research analyst, and Genna R. Cohen, an HSC health research assistant.

"While hospitals are making gains in quality, greater alignment of hospitals and physicians working together on quality improvement would likely spur considerably more improvement," Draper said

The study’s findings are detailed in a new HSC Issue Brief—Hospital Strategies to Engage Physicians in Quality Improvementavailable here. Other key study findings include:

  • While respondents often described medical staff bylaws as encouraging physicians to "be good citizens" and participate in quality improvement activities, bylaws often lack the specificity or accountability that clearly outline physicians’ responsibilities.
  • Hospital employment of physicians is becoming more common, often as part of a larger set of alignment strategies, such as securing emergency call coverage and initiating new service lines to attract patients. Typically, quality improvement is not the main reason driving tighter alignment of physicians and hospitals, but employment can create incentives for physician involvement in quality improvement by lessening competing pressures on physicians’ time and increasing physician accessibility and visibility in the hospital.
  • Credible data to identify areas that need improvement and systematically assess progress are essential to securing physician participation in hospital quality improvement. Many respondents recounted how physicians assume they are providing good quality of care until they are shown data proving otherwise.
  • Visible commitment by hospital leadership can foster physician involvement in quality improvement activities. An important role of hospital leadership is creating a strong quality culture by publicly demonstrating that quality improvement is important, supported and encouraged.
  • Physician involvement in quality improvement reportedly is often limited to a fraction of the active medical staff. Finding ways to engage more physicians is critical to quality improvement, which ultimately requires all members of the medical staff to adopt process and practice changes.
  • In soliciting physician involvement in quality improvement, hospital leaders reported the importance of clear communications. Respondents believe that showing physicians that quality improvement activities improve patient outcomes and aren’t just administrative or regulatory requirements increases their willingness to participate.

To identify and promote policies and practices that encourage hospitals and physicians to work together to improve quality, the study concluded that policy makers driving the nation’s health care quality improvement agenda should consider:

  • Rationalizing the demands placed on hospitals and physicians, focusing on a limited number of quality improvement initiatives that demonstrate the most promise for significant improvement and striving for consistency across programs;
  • Creating mechanisms to assist hospitals to use data to improve patient care quality, such as centralized data repositories; and
  • Establishing financial and other incentives to support hospital quality improvement while also examining state and federal regulations, such as gainsharing prohibitions, that may impede hospitals’ engagement of physicians in quality improvement.
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The Center for Studying Health System Change is a nonpartisan policy research organization committed to providing objective and timely research on the nation’s changing health system to help inform policy makers and contribute to better health care policy. HSC, based in Washington, D.C., is funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is affiliated with Mathematica Policy Research.



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The Center for Studying Health System Change Ceased operation on Dec. 31, 2013.