Patient flow in hospitals: understanding and controlling it better

Front Health Serv Manage. 2004 Summer;20(4):3-15.


Because waits, delays, and cancellations are so common in healthcare, patients and providers assume that waiting is an inevitable, but regrettable, part of the care process. For years, hospitals responded to delays by adding resources--more beds and buildings or more staff--as the only way to deal with an increasingly needy population. Furthermore, as long as payment for services covered the costs, more construction and more staff allowed for continued inefficiencies in the system. Today, few organizations can afford this solution. Moreover, recent work on assessing the reasons for delays suggests that adding resources is not the answer. In many cases, delays are not a resource problem; they are a flow problem. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has worked with more than 60 hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom to evaluate what influences the smooth and timely flow of patients through hospital departments and to develop and implement methods for improving flow. Specific areas of focus include smoothing the flow of elective surgery, reducing waits for inpatient admission through emergency departments, achieving timely and efficient transfer of patients from the intensive care unit to medical/surgical units, and improving flow from the inpatient setting to long-term-care facilities.

MeSH terms

  • Academies and Institutes
  • Crowding
  • Efficiency, Organizational*
  • Elective Surgical Procedures / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / trends*
  • Health Services Research
  • Hospital Departments / organization & administration*
  • Hospital Departments / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Patient Transfer / organization & administration
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / methods
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / organization & administration
  • Time and Motion Studies
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Utilization Review*
  • Waiting Lists