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May 12, 2015

Aiming Higher to Enhance Professionalism: Beyond Accreditation and Certification

Author Affiliations
  • 1The Joint Commission, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois
JAMA. 2015;313(18):1795-1796. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.3818

Professions have special privileges in the United States. There are intangible benefits such as prestige, but more importantly, professions have the dearly prized privilege of autonomy. With this privilege comes the expectation that a profession will establish codes of conduct and promote high standards of quality among its members. From the standpoint of creating codes of conduct, the medical profession has been a role model. In 1847, the newly formed American Medical Association met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the first national professional medical organization in the world. At that meeting, its members adopted the world's first national code of professional medical ethics and established standards for education, training, and conduct.1

More recently, the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American College of Physicians Foundation, and the European Federation of Internal Medicine jointly authored Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter.2 The charter established a set of professional responsibilities that inform physicians about how they should practice: to follow the fundamental principles of patient welfare, patient autonomy, and justice. Other medical societies have similarly focused on the behavior of their individual members and worked to inspire them to pursue lifelong learning, scientific practice, and ethical behavior.

However, medicine’s overall record of self-governance is less exemplary. Problematic behaviors have too often been tolerated within health care organizations and by the profession as a whole. Many stakeholders suggest that medicine has failed to address pressing societal needs such as poor quality of care and safety, lack of access to health care, and the high cost of care. As a consequence, threats to self-governance have arisen from government officials, private organizations purporting to judge physician quality, and consumers demanding greater accountability. Medical societies and other organizations have been more proactive recently by supporting health care reform and identifying opportunities to reduce low-value health care through the Choosing Wisely campaign.3 Yet the ability of medical societies to effect change is limited by their weak enforcement authority and their focus on individual physician behaviors. This is especially true in the area of health care quality and safety. The days of the solitary physician toiling in isolation are long gone. Increasingly, physicians are practicing in teams within complex organizations, and the quality and safety of health care depend on all team members and the system in which they work.

Accrediting and certifying organizations have traditionally helped the medical profession achieve good governance and self-regulation by requiring structures within health care organizations that promote and facilitate system-level leadership by physicians. For example, Joint Commission standards bestow the “self-governing organized medical staff” with the responsibility for credentialing, privileging, and evaluating the competency of practitioners; delineating the scope of privileges that will be granted to practitioners; and providing leadership in performance-improvement activities. The Joint Commission also created Ongoing Professional Practice Evaluation and Focused Professional Practice Evaluation to make privileging more objective and continuous so medical staffs can better determine if the care delivered by a practitioner falls below an acceptable level of performance. To address the problem of intimidating and inappropriate physician behaviors, The Joint Commission established leadership standards and issued guidance about how to address this important threat to safety.4 Accrediting and certifying organizations have also played a governing role through rigorous evaluation processes to protect the public from organizations and individuals that pose unacceptable risks because of noncompliance with safety standards or failure to deliver critical evidence-based processes of care. How effective these programs and activities have been in achieving their stated objectives is unclear, due in no small part to the difficulty of rigorously evaluating them.

Although these tools by which accrediting and certifying organizations help physicians with self-governance are important, they are inadequate to meet current quality and safety challenges. Physicians could make a much stronger case for continued self-governance if they took a more visible and vigorous leadership role in efforts that led to major improvements in the quality and safety of patient care. In the past, it might have been enough for individual physicians to work hard and provide care to patients to the best of their ability. Medicine was far more art than science. However, health care today is too complex for a single physician’s isolated efforts to be successful. Systems of care are necessary to achieve the highest levels of safety and quality. The variability in quality and safety of health care remains breathtaking—even in the United States, which spends the most money on it. Poor hand hygiene, transition failures, lack of coordination among clinicians caring for the same patient, wrong-site surgeries, and inpatient falls continue to cause harm. Consistent excellence must become the norm within individual organizations and across the delivery system if the medical profession is to regain its reputation as a responsible steward of health care.

If physicians are going to lead health system efforts to drive major improvements, they will need to acquire new skills and take on new responsibilities for quality improvement and safety, whether as part of system leadership or a group of engaged caregivers. Medical societies have emphasized to their members that working to improve quality is part of physician professionalism.2 Accrediting and certifying organizations can work in tandem with medical societies to help make this a reality. But just as health care has changed, the organizations that perform standard accreditation and certification functions will need to change to be effective in this new environment. Traditional approaches to these functions involve an organization marshalling requisite evidence and expertise to establish standards of practice by which a health care organization is judged, typically through an onsite survey. Analogously, organizations that certify physician competencies perform similar functions to develop examinations that judge physician qualifications. In both cases, this traditional approach of comparing performance to standards is able only to find deficiencies, ie, noncompliance with standards during an onsite survey or wrong answers on a test. That approach, by its very design, is inherently unable to recognize or foster excellence. A different set of tools, skills, and programs is required.

First among these changes is to state simply and clearly that the ultimate goal is zero harm for patients and health care workers. This means always delivering effective care, freedom from complications of care, and elimination of care that has no value (overuse). Some health systems have embraced this challenge and are well on their way to achieving this goal.5

Second, physicians and organizations should master the tools, methods, and science that businesses outside of health care have proven to be capable of facilitating the magnitude of improvement envisioned by this goal. The tools of Lean, Six Sigma, and change management and the science of high reliability provide just this capability.5 Briefly, Lean tools and strategies identify opportunities to eliminate the steps in a process that represent wasted effort and do not contribute to achieving the goal of the process. Six Sigma tools work to reduce "defects" or poor outcomes of processes. Change management tools are essential to ensure that the improved processes produced by Lean and Six Sigma are successfully implemented and sustained.6

Third, accrediting and certifying organizations must develop new programs and activities designed to foster, identify, and publicly recognize consistent excellence. These new programs should augment and be seamlessly integrated with traditional accreditation functions, which are still necessary and appropriate to establish a level of performance below which organizations and individual practitioners should not be permitted to operate.

For its part, The Joint Commission is taking on these 3 challenges. Six years ago, to emphasize that the organization needed to go beyond finding deficiencies in its accreditation surveys, the Joint Commission Board reframed the mission of the organization, which now reads: “to continuously improve health care for the public, in collaboration with other stakeholders, by evaluating health care organizations and inspiring them to excel in providing safe and effective care of the highest quality and value.” The Joint Commission has fully adopted Lean, Six Sigma, and change management for all of its internal improvement functions and has, to date, trained 45% of its workforce in the use of these tools. The Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare was established as a separate entity from the accreditation program to work with health care organizations that have also mastered these tools to produce new and more effective solutions to persistent quality problems. Its Center for Transforming Healthcare has embraced these new tools, as well as high-reliability science, and created a series of new programs and tools to engage physicians and health care organizations in this effort.5,7,8

Physicians should demand and lead new efforts to eradicate patient harm and produce consistent excellence across the full continuum of care. This strategy is the best way to ensure society will continue to entrust self-governance to the medical profession. Accrediting and certifying organizations can and should play a major role in this effort by embracing the goal of zero harm and creating new programs that supplement their traditional functions by directly promoting and supporting consistent excellence in the performance of physicians and health care organizations.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Mark R Chassin, MD, MPP, MPH, The Joint Commission, One Renaissance Blvd, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181 (mchassin@jointcommission.org).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

American Medical Association.  History of AMA ethics.http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama/our-history/history-ama-ethics.page. Accessed March 30, 2015.
ABIM Foundation.  Physician charter: principles of the charter.http://www.abimfoundation.org/Professionalism/Physician-Charter/Principles-of-the-Charter.aspx#PrimacyNn. Accessed March 30, 2015.
ABIM Foundation.  Choosing Wisely: an initiative of the ABIM Foundation.http://www.choosingwisely.org/. Accessed March 30, 2015.
The Joint Commission. Issue 40: behaviors that undermine a culture of safety. July 9, 2008. http://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/18/SEA_40.pdf. Accessed March 30, 2015.
Chassin  MR, Loeb  JM.  High-reliability health care: getting there from here.  Milbank Q. 2013;91(3):459-490.PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Robust Process Improvement. http://www.centerfortransforminghealthcare.org/about/rpi.aspx. Accessed April 19, 2015.
Chassin  MR, Mayer  C, Nether  K.  Improving hand hygiene at eight hospitals in the United States by targeting specific causes of noncompliance.  Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2015;41(1):4-12.Google Scholar
Chassin  MR, Nether  K, Mayer  C, Dickerson  MF; Beyond the collaborative.  spreading effective improvement in hand hygiene compliance.  Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2015;41(1):13-25.Google Scholar