There are many misnomers in American medical English. Patients walk into your clinic (from Greek kline, bed) to learn whether their scan was negative (good) or positive (bad). Those who have severe chronic pain may ask for their pain medicine (that relieve pain, not cause it), usually opioids. Some physicians would call them pain-seeking (though what they are seeking is relief). If they don’t get a prescription, they may rate their doctor poorly on a patient satisfaction survey, which is a big thing if you are into quality improvement. Quality improvement. There’s a misnomer.

Quality improvement in medicine is by definition limited to improving things you can measure, i.e. quantify, i.e. judge by criteria that are the ying to quality’s yang. Those measures may be valid or not, and may improve patients’ lives, longevity, etc. (or not) but they are not quality. Because they are measures. Numbers. You know, quantities.

The movement is dangerous in at least three ways. Firstly and most obviously, many of the things being measured haven’t been validated in prospective trials. They are either (poor) conjecture—like tight glycemic control for type II diabetics assumed to help because of good outcomes in type ones (since, you know, a skinny teenager and a morbidly obese 60-year-old are similar that way.) Or they came out of a corporate think-tank cocaine-fueled outside-the-box brainstorming session, like patient satisfaction scores1.

Secondly, even if they were the best measures in the world, tying them to promotion and compensation would have the unintended consequence of having practitioners loose sight of all other aspects of medicine, including the patient. There are many accounts of how it can happen—this one from Dr. Centor comes readily to mind—but since (1) identifying and (2) addressing the patient’s actual problem is difficult to measure objectively, it is not one of the benchmarks.

And finally, wherever there are numbers and money, techniques will evolve to game the system. David Simon’s account of how this happens in law enforcement is applicable. Want fewer central line infections? Enact a policy not to draw blood cultures from central lines! Too many nosocomial urinary tract infections? Urinalyses on admission for everyone! Hospitals create teams with dozens of people whose only job is to find new and better ways to do this. And they have to—because everyone else is doing it. A depressing amount of time, money, and effort wasted because of pointless exercises of anonymous pencil-pushers.

This is how you get to a near 3000% increase in the number of hospital administrators over 30 years. I am sure they are all good people, with good salaries, but they are, for the most part, insignificant. An epiphenomenon induced by someone’s desire to turn healthcare into an industry, forgetting that the six sigma ideology that works so well for toaster ovens can’t be forced onto moist, squishy, and fragile humans.

Which is also a good working definition of quality improvement.


  1. Some speculation on my end there. They might have been on LSD