A Carmaker As A Model For A Hospital?

Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle
Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle
While health care costs have been going up most everywhere else, at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle they're coming down by driving out waste, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"This is one of the reasons health care has become unaffordable in the United States is that we are wasting time and we're wasting valuable medical assets," said Dr. Robert Mecklenburg.

The hospital wasted no time treating Beth Lauderdale. She was getting physical therapy for severe back pain just two hours after she phoned in.

"I called at 8:30 and they said they had a 10:20 appointment," Lauderdale said.

She didn't get an expensive MRI or have a long wait to see a specialist - a big change from the way things used to be.

"Five years ago, a person might wait a week or two for an appointment and they might see several docs," Mecklenburg said. "They might see a primary care physician, they might get an MRI."

It's the way things are still done in too much of America's health care system says Sen. Max Baucus, a Congressional leader in health care reform.

"We in America pay for hospitals or doctors on the basis of quantity," Baucus said. "The more tests ordered the more procedures performed, the more the doctor and hospitals get reimbursed."

Virginia Mason changed the way it practices medicine based on an unlikely model - the way Toyota builds cars.

"At the end of the day, the Toyota production system is all about the customer," said Dr. Gary Kaplan, the CEO of Virginia Mason Hospital. "For us the patient."

Kaplan takes staff to Toyota's factories in Japan every year and practices what the car maker preaches. Just as the automaker's executives spend part of each day on the factory floor, Kaplan tours the hospital daily looking for problems and solutions. Everyone is encouraged to look for changes to make work more efficient. Nurses developed ways to spend most of their time with patients instead of at the nursing station.

"They are using Computers On Wheels, what we call COWs," Kaplan said.

At a meeting each week the staff reviews the results of what Toyota calls "Rapid Process Improvement Workshops," looking for ways to increase efficiency.

In their four day workshop, with the help of a home video camera, the staff of one clinic acted out what happens to a new patient. They came up with 10 things they would start doing differently immediately.

Virginia Mason reached out to area employers like COSTCO and asked them what they needed most from hospital visits.

"I care about quick treatment," said Katrina Zittnick with Costco. "Immediate appointments, the right treatment at the traumatic, acute time."

So at Virginia Mason's back clinic there were dramatic changes, where treatment time was cut from an average of 66 days to 12.

While Virginia Mason doesn't make cars, the hospital is heading down a road that may lead to America's health care future.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.