Medical Director and Vice-President
Hannover Medical School
T: +49 511 532 6030
A clinical pathway is a multiprofessional means of working that makes the very latest medical knowledge available to individual patients in a real treatment situation and with the effective exploitation of all resources. This definition comprises the following essential points:
- As a multiprofessional means of working, it applies not only to areas that concern the doctor, but also to nursing care, physiotherapy and all staff who deal directly or indirectly with the patient.
- The term “evidence-based medicine” is deliberately not used because no evidence-based documents exist for most of the working stages within a clinical pathway. Accordingly, the tendency is to get a consensus of expert opinions rather than genuine evidence-based studies.
- A real treatment situation represents a delimitation on recommendations or guidelines from specialist medical associations, which on an abstract level recommend a specific procedure, diagnosis or therapy. With the clinical pathway, the structures and forms of organisation that really exist are taken into account and implemented.
- The effective exploitation of all resources is not, as a rule, the object of recommendations or guidelines from specialist associations. It is in the interests of individual hospital operators, however, to make effective use of resources – that is, to make the best use of the costs incurred.
The term “clinical pathway” is too narrow for the modern medical practitioner. Today, medical treatment concepts are being applied with interlinked outpatient and inpatient structures, including rehabilitation services. For this reason, “trans-sectoral planned treatment sequence” is actually a better term.
A clinical pathway is much more than a simple description process. Algorithms have not proved their worth in the medical sector, because too many patients make individual deviations from the standard path. A better approach is to build up a clinical pathway on a target-oriented basis. In other words, the issue is not simply to describe a specific sequence but, more especially, to describe which aims should be achieved with individual means. These aims make it easier for the multiprofessional team to understand the individual work of the other groups and to integrate them into their own procedures.
Creating the pathway
The practical experience of many hospitals that have used clinical pathways shows the enormous importance of creating the pathways. This is almost as important as the later practical implementation.Clinical pathways need to be created on an interdisciplinary and multiprofessional basis. Every team that will work with the clinical pathway must be involved, and it is beneficial if a neutral moderator can coordinate it. The moderator need not provide the technical knowledge required, but he must master the tools for carrying out a target-oriented approach. Creating a clinical pathway for the first time is very time-consuming, and everyone needs to be aware of this. The individual department management must be clear about setting the goals for the clinical pathway and be able to convey this to the staff. Only when the target of the clinical pathway is accepted can it be implemented in practice, making the provision of information and the communicating of goals absolutely essential before the pathway is created. A standard operating procedure then needs to be developed to arrive at a clinical pathway.
The internet has proved to be a good forum for exchanging ideas about clinical pathways and provides a stimulus to indicate which topics can be covered and what clinical pathways can look like. They are also useful if they include a description of how the pathway was arrived at. However, a clinical pathway cannot be copied from one clinic to another – it is precisely the process of creating them in accordance with a specific environment that is the key to success. The adoption of a clinical pathway from another clinic jumps this essential step and seldom leads to success.
A clinical pathway will only achieve success if more than 90% of staff are familiar with it and put it to use. Staff from neighbouring departments who may come in contact with the pathway should also not be forgotten. In the surgical sectors in particular, radiologists, anaesthetists and consultant internal medicine specialists all need to be involved, as does the management sector.
Looking after clinical pathways
Once the clinical pathway is in use, it should be reviewed. Checking and comparing the pathway against guidelines, recommendation studies and new medical findings on a regular basis is absolutely essential. Even without reference to changes in scientific findings, clinical pathways should still be scrutinised for their relevance about every two years. The sources to be looked at to identify possible changes need to be established beforehand. It must also be determined which team is going to edit the pathway. A particulary important factor is the issue of editorial rights – who is entitled to change which parts, and how will the change be represented? If changes are needed then it must be ensured that every member of staff concerned is made aware of the changes and makes use of the new version.
Clinical pathways must not duplicate workload. Many clinics introduce procedures that are designed especially for clinical pathways. One important point is deviation. If deviation from a clinical pathway becomes necessary, it needs to be documented separately. On the one hand, this is important for the individual patient, but it is also significant for the analysis of whether there is a systematic fault present in the clinical pathway. If a clinical pathway has been well thought out and structured, the documentation work will be made substantially easier, because most of the treatment stages will already have been described. This means that the workings of the clinical pathway can be easily documented in the form of checklists. Hospitals with a hospital information system should incorporate the clinical pathways into this system. Systems with a workflow support are particularly helpful in this context as they allow for support to be provided semiautomatically (the system makes a suggestion to the staff) for actions based on pre-established parameters, such as requesting an examination or ordering a medication.
As well as the practical application and the advantages for the patient, clinical pathways are also an excellent tool for formulating medical diagnostics and therapy in a calculated manner and with the resources of business management. The precise process analysis that must precede every clinical pathway is followed by a differentiated costs analysis, classified according to personnel and material costs. In addition to this, infrastructure costs for particular areas and services of other in-house departments can also be determined by means of the clinical pathway. The calculation of clinical pathways can be used, among other things, for working out business plans and developing new services in diagnostics and therapy. Clinical pathways can be the basis for the planning of changes to services if it is intended that specific areas are to be developed or withdrawn, and they are the basis for future calculations in those countries in which diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) or similar procedures are used.
Clinical pathways influence treatment costs. Costs can be reduced by eliminating duplication and losses due to friction between professional groups. During the creation of a clinical pathway, individual diagnostic and therapy stages are checked for their effectiveness. In many clinics, the creation process leads to unnecessary laboratory work and radiology examinations being made redundant – this is a direct part of the process of cost reduction. Because the effectiveness of treatment rises with the use of clinical pathways, more patients can be moved through a clinic with the same use of resources. A further costs reduction effect is achieved from the standardisation of materials. The stock of articles can be reduced, meaning that purchasing batches can be increased. This can then be added to a reduction in transaction costs, storage areas and costs due to redundant material being done away with.
It is also possible, however, for increases in costs to occur as a result of clinical pathways. Combining new diagnostics and therapy, which previously was applied optionally, can lead to a rise in costs. The consistent application of guidelines can also lead to more diagnostics being carried out than previously. Experiences so far have shown, however, that cost reduction clearly outweighs the increased costs. Clinics with well-made clinical pathways are more effective and more economical.
A risk management tool
It has been shown that clinical pathways lead to improved cooperation between teams and departments in a hospital and that effectiveness rises while costs fall. Clinical pathways have positive effects in other areas too; for example, losses due to friction are avoided, as are conflicts caused by misunderstandings. Misunderstandings and lack of communication are the most frequent cause of incidents or near-miss incidents in the hospital sector. Therefore, clinical pathways actively contribute to risk management, particularly in diagnostics and therapy.
Clinical pathways allow managers to carry out genuine checks on results. Because the patients included in a clinical pathway are treated according to relatively equal schematic procedures, the result can be better monitored and compared. The results can also be compared with the institution’s own results from the previous year or with those from other clinics, which is of great interest to the hospitals concerned. It is the analysis of comparable processes and different costs that shows the points at which, by increasing efficiency, costs can be reduced without sacrificing quality.
In addition, clinical pathways are mandatorily required if a hospital or department wishes to be certified in accordance with DIN ISO. They are also a great aid when cooperating with other hospitals or other treatment providers such as outpatient care services or rehabilitation clinics.
What does the patient get from all this?
The patient is the real winner when it comes to clinical pathways. Diagnostics and therapy are carried out in accordance with a well-structured schematic arrangement, and every healthcare team concerned knows how the clinical pathway works. Good information is available at all times regarding the current status of treatment, and every member of staff also knows precisely what the next step in the process is, which gives the patient a great deal of security.
Clinics with clinical pathways have decided to opt for transparency, and this transparency is something that today is viewed very positively by patients to whom it has been explained. By matching the activities of healthcare teams, errors are avoided and stays in hospital shortened. Regular upkeep of the clinical pathway ensures the patient receives state-of-the-art medication and is provided with information relating to further treatment on discharge. Patients are not able to assess the objective outcome of a treatment and, accordingly, subjective parameters, such as a sense of safety, security and being kept informed, are important surrogates. This is precisely what a clinical pathway can provide, and so contribute to patient satisfaction.
Clinical pathways are a benefit for clinics as well as for patients. Nevertheless, their introduction and implementation must be something that is desired and then professionally carried out with the backing of the management for success to be achieved. There are five parameters that must be filled:
- Creation of a clinical pathway on an interdisciplinary and multiprofessional basis.
- Distribution of the information to all concerned.
- Regular application of clinical pathways to the right patients.
- Involvement of neighbouring departments and management.
- Regular upkeep of the clinical pathway on the basis of the latest medical information available.
If these five major points are respected, clinical pathways will become an essential element that no modern clinic will be able to do without.