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Improving Patient Flow in Cork University Hospital

Feb 2, 2018 - J.A. McNamara



campus imageIn order to understand the patient flow difficulties that manifest themselves in our Emergency Departments, it is necessary to appreciate that the contributory factors reside in our processes both in our acute hospitals and in community services. Accordingly the resolution of these patient flow challenges requires a focus on multiple factors such as collective leadership in our hospitals and community services, the creation of a shared passion that we will resolve impediments to patient flow and a commitment to a change management programme that will incrementally exploit opportunities for improvement.

There is no quick fix solution to this, perhaps the most complex of problems in our health service and this is the story of what we are doing to address the challenge of patient flow in Cork University Hospital (CUH) where to date over 200 different change initiatives have been implemented with evidence of success over the past six months.

Changes Implemented

The implementation of these change initiatives began over four years ago with an acknowledgement that the internal processes in the Hospital were not fit for purpose and were in need of urgent attention. In response, hospital leadership undertook a week-long study of the flow of c. 1,400 patients (there are c. 65,000 patients per year attending our Emergency Department). The application of science and analysis to understanding the impediments to patient flow coupled with the use of Lean Management techniques, resulted in a body of work that was focused on addressing inefficiencies in patient flow.

These individual change initiatives were largely implemented by redirecting existing resources in the Hospital to improve, for example, the flow of patients to assessment units for a decision to be made on admission or discharge, to the implementation of new processes to reduce pre-Cardiac Surgery inpatient numbers to a minimum with considerable savings in bed days. Where necessary additional resources were invested in establishing new services such as an Ortho-Geriatrician service that streamlines the flow of Orthopaedic trauma patients out of CUH to the South Infirmary University Hospital, where the rehabilitation service is located or to another community setting. The full range of initiatives can be viewed at www.cuh.hse.ie.

In 2017, leadership in CUH decided that priority would be given to a series of initiatives that are embodied in Project Flow ’17 (PF’17) that set specific targets to reduce trolley numbers in the Emergency Department but also critically to improve the patient experience time for patients attending the ED. One of the most important aspects of PF’17 is that it focuses on the contribution that every member of staff in the Hospital has to play in optimizing patient flow.

However the resolution of the difficulties in the flow of emergency patients cannot be dealt with by changing processes in the Hospital alone and must incorporate a programme of work with our community partners. In April 2017 a weekly systematic review of every patient in the Hospital who was over 14 days as an in-patient commenced (the average length of stay in CUH is 6 days which is considerably shorter than any comparable similar sized hospital in Ireland) and this has effectively created c. 10 beds by reducing the number of such patients.

These meetings have highlighted many of the challenges that the health system faces in working to place patients appropriately in alternative community settings such as Community Hospitals, Nursing Homes and in the home setting with homecare packages. The development of a shared leadership commitment to improving the system of discharges from acute hospitals to community settings is possibly the greatest challenge that the HSE faces and given that 3% of patients in CUH occupy 30% of bed days, there is a compelling argument that additional beds are needed in community settings rather than in acute hospitals. In any event, a range of different types of beds ranging from Intensive Care to community placements are required and the forthcoming Bed Capacity Report is critically important in this debate.


What then has been the change in patient flow as measured by the number of patients on trolleys in the Emergency Department in CUH at 8am since the implementation of PF ’17 and the other many individual change initiatives? The target set in the Plan was for an ambitious 50% reduction in the number of patients on trolleys each day in ED and the following Figure 1 demonstrates that this has been achieved on a consistent basis over the past six months.

Figure 1

Trolley Numbers in Emergency Department in CUH 2016 – 2017

 30 Day moving average                      


The number of patients on trolleys in ED in CUH remains at an unacceptable level but the progress made in the implementation of PF’17 in the second half of 2017 and the implementation of 200 individual change initiatives provides encouragement that this most intractable of problems can be managed to a level that provides the public and the exchequer with assurance that it is getting value for the very substantial additional investment that has been made in additional staff, promotional opportunities and increased resources. Of note the trolley count for the second half of 2017 averaged 12 per morning which represents a 50% performance improvement over the first half of that year. Our plan for a continued, sustained improvement programme that will be embodied in Project Flow ’18 is now being finalized that will set ever more challenging targets for our performance in 2018.

The experience in CUH suggests that additional resources of themselves will not resolve the challenge of optimizing patient flow for emergency patients. Additional resources must be invested commensurate with change in process in our individual hospitals and community settings.

The public has invested significant additional resources in our hospital and community services since Minister Harney declared in 2006 the Emergency Department problem a “National Emergency”. They deserve our collective leadership commitment to demonstrate that this seemingly intractable problem can in fact be resolved not by more of everything but by a commitment to continuous change.


 J.A. McNamara

Chief Executive Officer


3 Comment(s) on this page



This is a comment based on observations during a recent visit to the Hospital for a small orthopedic operation and is lieu of what was going to be an email or letter to the Chief Executive. Hence it is not a response to the blog on this page - although I am impressed by the transparency and obvious good intentions shown here.
In preparation for my operation I was admitted to a 'Day Surgery Ward' which may be the Day Surgery Unit' which was recently opened. I spent several hours there so was in an excellent position to observe the practices and procedures.
Two things stand out
1. There appear to be 3 levels of nursing staff. These were identifiable by means of different uniforms - one wearing a grey and green stripe, one orange and one maroon uniforms. Every patient was at some time or other serviced by each level of nursing staff with a consequent large amount of repetition and with much scope for omission. In many ways I likened the approach to a soccer game featuring 7 or 8 year olds where everyone chases the ball. The benefits of having a dedicated approach where one nurse is attached to a particular patient would seem to be very obvious.
2. The use of paper and cardboard files is something which just has to be tackled. I saw these files used, moved, removed, lost and found! There doesn't seem to one place for keeping these records!
Again, the benefits of hand held computer monitors which would track admissions, record actions and more importantly remind nurses of requirements seems obvious.



Great to get some real world feedback of realities on the ground which all too often staff and management do not recognise as day to day exposure makes one blind to these issues and they just become the norm and are invisible to those providing the service.
Pity you did not get a response from CUH.



Makes for very interesting reading I. B.

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Last Modified Date: 02/02/2018 09:43:52