Implementing Lean Quality Improvement in Primary Care: Impact on Efficiency in Performing Common Clinical Tasks

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Feb;36(2):274-279. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06317-9. Epub 2020 Nov 24.


Background: Many primary care practices have adopted Lean techniques to reduce the amount of time spent completing routine tasks. Few studies have evaluated both immediate and sustained impacts of Lean to improve this aspect of primary care work efficiency.

Objective: To examine 3-year impacts of Lean implementation on the amount of time taken for physicians to complete common clinical tasks.

Design: Non-randomized stepped wedge with segmented regression and interrupted time series analysis (January 2011-December 2016).

Participants: A total of 317 physician-led teams in 46 primary care departments in a large ambulatory care delivery system.

Intervention: Lean redesign was initiated in one pilot site followed by system-wide spread across all primary care departments. Redesigns included standardization of exam room equipment and supplies, streamlining of call management processes, care team co-location, and team management of the electronic inbox.

Measures: Time-stamped EHR tracking of physicians' completion time for 4 common tasks: (1) office visit documentation and closure of patient charts; (2) telephone call resolution; (3) prescription refill renewal; and (4) response to electronic patient messages.

Results: After Lean implementation, we found decreases in the amount of time to complete: office visit documentation (- 29.2% [95% CI: - 44.2, - 10.1]), telephone resolution (- 22.2% [95% CI: - 38.1, - 2.27]), and renewal of prescription refills (- 2.96% per month [95% CI: - 4.21, - 1.78]). These decreases were sustained over several years. Response time to electronic patient messages did not change significantly.

Conclusions: Lean redesigns led to improvements in timely completion of 3 out of 4 common clinical tasks. Our findings support the use of Lean techniques to engage teams in routine aspects of patient care. More research is warranted to understand the mechanisms by which Lean promotes quality improvement and effectiveness of care team workflows.

Keywords: Lean management; physician efficiency; primary care redesign; primary care teams; workflow/task completion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Interrupted Time Series Analysis
  • Physicians*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Quality Improvement*
  • Workflow