Three ways an agile strategy can accelerate patient care for healthcare providers

Elizabeth Metzger

By Elizabeth Metzger


By incorporating Agile ways of working, healthcare providers can decrease costs, improve resource management, and accelerate high-quality patient care.

With patients experiencing exorbitant wait times and enjoying better, customer-focused approaches from technology companies, healthcare providers face growing pressure to improve efficiency and provide a better patient experience, two challenges organisational agility solves. While Agile has traditionally been the favoured delivery method of IT teams, it’s helping whole organisations deliver customer-centric offerings at pace.

For healthcare providers, embracing organisational agility means focusing on three things:

1. Visualise and streamline patient workflows

Using the Kanban methodology, healthcare providers can visualise their workflow to decrease the length of patient stays and improve resource management. Kanban clearly shows work as it moves through a process, identifying potential bottlenecks and helping teams collaborate more effectively.

While providers currently have a clear process for how patients go from making an appointment to being released, it’s not usually mapped out visually. Creating a complete visual of the process gives providers the opportunity to measure the cycle time and steps in the process so they can see inefficiencies. This will show managers where to allocate resources or provide additional support and let them bring front-line workers into improvement discussions to quickly solve issues.

In Hong Kong, these agile practices reduced the length of emergency department stays by an average of 40 minutes. And research shows that involving front-line workers in the resolution of workflow inefficiencies will motivate and empower employees, and significantly improve patient flow and satisfaction.

Providers can streamline patient workflows by mapping the process, allocating resources to the bottlenecks and collaborating with their employees to resolve any inefficiencies.

2. Use work in progress limits to increase flow

Once healthcare providers have mapped out their patient workflow, they can set work in progress (WIP) limits throughout the patient cycle to enhance the focus of healthcare workers and mitigate bottlenecks. WIP limits cap the amount of work (number of patients) in each status according to the team’s capacity, meaning patients move through the system more effectively as no part of it gets overloaded.

Although providers currently use waiting rooms and appointment scheduling to limit the number of patients entering care facilities, the overall process and stages within are often overwhelmed. Visualisation and measurement of the workflow will indicate how many patients each step can handle, enabling providers to set WIP limits throughout the cycle. And when a stage reaches its WIP limit, management will instantly see the bottleneck and allocate resources to meet patient needs. For example, when multiple patients are waiting for blood tests and the stage’s WIP limit has been met, nurses from another stage, such as the initial vital checks, can be redirected to assist.

By only bringing in a patient when there’s capacity for them, healthcare providers ensure the capacity they have goes to the highest priority patients and avoid overburdening their staff. Limiting patient intake to capacity will also allow healthcare providers to give their full, undivided attention to each patient at each step in the workflow. Enhanced focus of healthcare workers will improve the patient experience and decrease the time of each process step, as there will be no time loss from switching tasks. Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time and lead to increased errors.

3. Better prioritise the backlog of patients

As WIP limits reduce the number of patients in the system at any one time, it’s vital to refine and prioritise the backlog to ensure the highest priority patients receive the right care first. This means healthcare providers need to gather information on these patients and assess their treatment needs.

Currently, providers gather information through patient forms and verbal descriptions, as well as triage, analysis and testing. But from 2021, Interoperability will introduce new rules so providers, payers and patients can exchange information in real time. Interoperability would let providers quickly and seamlessly access a patient’s medical record, either through their electronic health record (EHR) or directly from the patient’s phone, providing an opportunity to reduce healthcare costs by an estimated $30 billion. Similarly, letting patients and medical professionals enter information into the same online tool, rather than filling out paper forms, will simplify data gathering.

Agile practices improve patient care

Incorporating Agile ways of working into healthcare by visualising and improving workflows, setting WIP limits and efficiently managing backlogs will let providers better focus on patient needs. With these Agile methods, healthcare providers can lower costs, improve resource management and transform patient care.

About the authors

Elizabeth Metzger
Elizabeth Metzger PA healthcare expert Elizabeth balances quantitative analysis with strategic thinking to drive client success.

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