A separate analysis by IBM Watson Health supports the health systems' focus on standardizing processes across the organization. IBM Watson found that the individual hospitals within the 15 Top Health Systems performed comparably on each of the nine CMS measures used in the analysis.
"The hospitals in each system are all close together on performance," said Julie Shook, 100 Top Program director at IBM Watson Health. "It shows what the value of being part of a system brings—they can help raise the bar and provide a higher standard that is delivered in each community."
IBM Watson's best-performing systems were selected from a group of 338 health systems across the U.S. The 15 systems recognized represent the top five from three categories based on total operating expenses: large systems generating expenses of more than $1.85 billion; medium-sized systems generating between $800 million and $1.85 billion; and small systems with less than $800 million in operating expenses.
The top-performing systems performed better on all of the CMS measures compared with the others in the data set. Inpatient mortality rates at the 15 top health systems were 14.6% lower than their peers and complication rates were 17.3% lower. The average length of stay was 8.8% shorter and wait times in the emergency department were 18.2% shorter compared with the benchmark.
Additionally, the top health systems' hospital-acquired infection rates, which were included for the first time this year by IBM Watson, were on average 16.2% lower than the other systems.
At Sentara Healthcare, which was recognized by IBM Watson for the first time this year in the large systems category, physicians from every hospital work together on quality improvement efforts so care is standardized systemwide. "We look to get variation out of the system—we are only as good as the weakest hospital in our system," said Howard Kern, CEO of Sentara, which operates 12 hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina.
Physicians and managers from across the system meet on a monthly basis to discuss quality improvement efforts. Called the clinical leadership council, the members evaluate performance measures and discuss what aspects of clinical care can be improved. Solutions are then discussed by relying on evidence-based practices and clinical expertise.
For example, efforts to prevent unnecessary readmissions are handled the same way at all 12 hospitals. The health system has established protocols that require every patient to have a follow-up appointment scheduled with their physician before they leave the hospital. Additionally, patients are given their prescribed medications before they leave. And then a few days after patients have returned home, a nurse manager or care coordinator calls the patient to ensure they are taking the medications and not experiencing any issues.
"We spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that we are not just a hospital company, but that we provide the entire continuum of care," said Dr. Murali Naidu, chief clinical officer of Sentara. "We can impact people's health and get them better across all of the touch points and beyond."
The efforts led to a systemwide decline in readmissions, dipping to 13.9% in December 2016, compared with 14.6% in January 2015.
Hospitals leaders are also encouraged to discuss their successful quality improvement initiatives. Every hospital treats a unique patient population, so nurses and doctors are empowered to innovate and come up with solutions that work for them. "We learn from anywhere in the organization. A small community hospital, a rural hospital might have a best practice," Kern said.