Virginia Mason Medical Center CEO touts innovation

January 29, 2013

By Warren Kagarise

Dr. Gary Kaplan sought to streamline health care and create a safer — and more inviting — environment for patients upon assuming the CEO post at Virginia Mason Medical Center in 2000.

“We said, ‘Should we just focus on being victims of this system? Can we just complain and go to Congress and say, “Give us more money,” or should we actually focus on our circle of concern and our circle of influence — things we can actually do something about?’” he recalled Jan. 24 at the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation in Issaquah luncheon.

So, Kaplan, a practicing internal medicine physician at the hospital, set out to apply the Toyota Production System, or Lean, to health care management with goals to rein in high costs and improve quality, safety and efficiency to deliver better and more affordable health care.

Virginia Mason executives started to reshape a health care system focused on ease for physicians, administrators and health care professionals — rather than on patients’ comfort and time. Kaplan pointed to waiting rooms as a sign of inefficiency built into the existing system.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on building waiting rooms, so that you can hurry up and be on time and then wait for us,” he said. “We designed it that way.”

So, a decade ago, Virginia Mason started to phase out waiting rooms to move patients through the health care system faster and more efficiently.

In June 2002, Kaplan and other leaders traveled to Japan to learn Lean practices firsthand. The group spent almost a week on the factory floor at Hitachi Air Conditioning.

“What we learned is that you don’t have to know a lot about air conditioners or Freon if you understand the tools and the methods of observation and measurement,” Kaplan said.

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