The impact of lean thinking on operational efficiency in a rural district hospital outpatient department in KwaZulu-Natal.
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Introduction Health-care service in South Africa, especially in the public sector, is fraught with numerous problems, including ineffective operations management in health care facilities. This contributes to poor service delivery and a lackluster work environment. Non-value-adding activities result in, inter alia, long cycle and waiting times, and low staff morale. With Lean thinking, health care managers could tackle specific issues to improve operational efficiency. Aim The purpose of the study was to apply Lean thinking, and to determine its effect on efficiency and staff morale within the outpatient department at Catherine Booth Hospital, in order to inform recommendations to improve operational efficiency in rural district hospital outpatient departments. Methods An operational action-research study design was used. The study sample consisted of all service nodes and employees of the outpatient department in Catherine Booth Hospital. Cycle and waiting times were iteratively measured for all service nodes. Statistical analyses on pre- and post-intervention results were carried out. Results Cycle and waiting time targets were met and exceeded in three service nodes, but only the Investigations node showed statistically significant results (cycle time reduced from 16.7 to 12.2 minutes; p=0.04; and waiting time reduced from 11.93 to 10 minutes; p=0.03). The waiting time for Consulting Rooms improved significantly (80.95 to 74.43 minutes; p<0.0001). Significant decreasing trends in waiting times over the study period were found in Patient Administration (p=0.04), Patient Screening (p<0.0001) and Consulting Rooms (p<0.0001). The trend in average operational efficiency improved over time from 16.35% to 20.13%. The implementation of Lean had a positive impact on the proportion of OPD staff satisfied with their jobs (increased from 21.1% to 77.8%; p<0.0001) and proportion of staff that felt motivated (increased from 15.8% to 77.8%; p<0.0001). Discussion Rural public sector hospitals require a novel and evidence-based approach to improving operational efficiency and staff morale in OPDs and other departments. Lean implementation had a positive impact on cycle and waiting times in all service nodes. Attitude towards teamwork and communication strength are positively impacted by the process of Lean implementation. However, factors such as differing priorities and logic among staff in the OPD and management negatively affect the outcomes of Lean implementation. Conclusion and recommendations The application of Lean principles, tools and techniques is possible in a rural district hospital OPD, without any demands on staff in terms of learning and adopting a new quality-improvement management approach by which to improve operational efficiency. The lessons learnt from the implementation of Lean thinking at a rural hospital used in this study may be emulated for quality improvement across similar hospitals and its sustainability can be assessed further.