Background: The design of delivery systems that can truly conduct continuous quality improvement (CQI) as a routine part of clinical care provision remains a vexing problem. The effectiveness of the "computerized firm system" approach to chronic disease CQI was examined, with diabetes as the focus of a 5-year case study.
Methods: A large family medical center had been divided into two parallel group practices for reasons of efficiency. These frontline structures (also known as primary care "firms") were supported to serially adapt and evaluate selected CQI interventions by first introducing process changes on one firm but not the other and comparing the groups. Because all the required longitudinal data were contained in a computerized repository, it was possible to conduct these controlled "firm trials" in a matter of months at low cost.
Results: During a 3-year period, implementation of point-of-service reminders and a pharmacist out-reach program increased recommended glycohemoglobin (HbA1c) testing by 50% (p = 0.02) and reduced the number of diabetic patients inadequately controlled by 43% (p < 0.01). Following this outcome improvement, patients exhibited a 16% reduction in ambulatory visit rates (p = 0.04). The observed outcome improvement, however, was reversed during the subsequent 2 years, when staffing austerities forced by unrelated declines in clinic revenue caused the withdrawal of trial interventions.
Conclusions: The processes and outcomes of diabetes care were improved, demonstrating that CQI and controlled trials are not mutually exclusive in moving toward the practice of evidence-based management. Health care systems can, by conducting serial firm trials, become learning organizations. CQI programs of all kinds will likely never flourish, however, until quality improvement and reimbursement mechanisms have become better aligned.