Lessons for Reducing Disparities in Regional Quality Improvement Efforts

Published Online: September 21, 2012
Scott C. Cook, PhD; Anna P. Goddu, MSc; Amanda R. Clarke, MPH; Robert S. Nocon, MHS; Kevin W. McCullough, MJ; and Marshall H. Chin, MD, MPH
Regional efforts to improve quality of care face particular challenges when addressing racial and ethnic disparities in health. Diverse populations have different needs and barriers, and the same quality improvement (QI) intervention can affect them variably. Thus, different approaches may be necessary to deliver high-quality healthcare to different populations.

Learning How to Improve Quality and Reduce Disparities

Inequalities in health and healthcare have been documented for decades, but concerted efforts to reduce or eliminate them are relatively recent. Since 2005, Finding Answers: Disparities Research for Change, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), has been discovering what works, and what does not, to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare.1 Over the past 7 years, the program has synthesized intervention research in multiple high-impact disease areas and awarded 33 grantee organizations funds to evaluate different approaches to reducing disparities. In 2006, RWJF launched the Aligning Forces for Quality (AF4Q) initiative, a bold regional effort to improve quality of care and reduce inequality in health and healthcare.2 The director of Finding Answers has been a member of the AF4Q initiative national advisory committee since 2008. Finding Answers began providing technical assistance in 2010 to help AF4Q regional alliances (multistakeholder

partnerships in each AF4Q initiative community), and practices within them, to successfully incorporate equity into their ambulatory QI activities.

When Finding Answers and the AF4Q initiative started, relatively little was known about how to reduce inequality in healthcare. Some of the Finding Answers interventions have succeeded; others have failed or had mixed results. As a result, our knowledge of how best to incorporate equity into practice- and region-level QI efforts has grown substantially. Below, we share lessons from the past 7 years of Finding Answers, provide perspectives on the AF4Q initiative’s approach to equity, and offer recommendations for future regional efforts to reduce disparities.

Finding Answers’ Lessons Learned: The Roadmap to Reduce Disparities

Finding Answers grantees faced many challenges implementing interventions to reduce disparities. Their experiences highlighted the need for comprehensive yet flexible guidance to design and implement equity activities. And so, based on our grantees’ experiences and our systematic reviews of interventions to reduce disparities, Finding Answers developed the Roadmap to Reduce Disparities.3 The Roadmap is a guide for incorporating equity into QI efforts: it outlines the steps to plan, implement, and sustain equitable care. The Roadmap can be used by a single practice, multi-facility healthcare organizations, or regional multi-stakeholder collaboratives.

The Roadmap to Reduce Disparities is a 6-step process: (1) recognize disparities and take responsibility for reducing them (eg, by collecting and disseminating performance data stratified by patient race, ethnicity, and language); (2) implement a basic QI structure and process; (3) create a culture of equity that incorporates equity as an integral component of all QI efforts; (4) design specific interventions, using tools such as a root cause analysis to clearly address the underlying causes of documented disparities; (5) implement, evaluate, and adjust the intervention; and (6) sustain the intervention. The Roadmap is not necessarily a linear process; various components can be implemented simultaneously or maintained throughout. For example, planning for sustainability is ideally integrated throughout the entire process.

Additionally, the Roadmap does not recommend any specific interventions. Rather, organizations must tailor interventions to their particular setting and patient population. All organizations must partner directly with their patients to accurately assess the causes of the disparity and design interventions that are culturally tailored. Patient involvement is essential even for projects targeting providers, care teams, organizations, and the community. Furthermore, a disparities intervention must be cognizant of the organization’s mission, QI infrastructure, resources, leadership, and staff. Sometimes, the intervention includes changing organizational structures and attitudes.

Although no magic bullets or one-size-fits-all interventions exist, Finding Answers has identified promising practicesto reduce disparities. Promising disparities interventions are multifactorial, culturally tailored, and team-based; they often include nonphysicians such as nurses, patient navigators, and community health workers. They address multiple points along the pathway of care and closely coordinate and monitor care. They often involve family and the community, and emphasize interactive skills-based training rather than passive learning.3,4

Why Is the Roadmap Necessary?

The Roadmap guides professionals along a standardized process to address issues that may vary within a region or practice. The causes of and solutions to any particular disparity can vary significantly within the same geographic region. When so many contributing factors are different, the Roadmap ensures that all organizations, whether regional or practice-based, will follow a comprehensive systematic process to discover the answers that work for them and, most importantly, their patients.

Perspectives on the AF4Q Initiative

Based on our grantee interventions, systematic reviews, and our experience delivering technical assistance to the AF4Q initiative, lessons relevant to regional QI efforts emerged. We did not know many of these lessons when the important work of the AF4Q initiative began; we hope that our perspective will be valuable to future efforts.

AF4Q Initiative’s Successes for Reducing Disparities

Key aspects of the AF4Q initiative provided a foundation for disparities reduction:

Multi-stakeholder coalitions convened the key players. The inherent structure of the AF4Q initiative is a major strength of its approach to disparities reduction: multi-stakeholder coalitions of consumers, providers, and payers are vital to reducing regional health and healthcare disparities. They can establish the common message that disparities are unacceptable and must be prioritized, and serve as a vehicle for regionwide initiatives. They can provide technical assistance, establish practice-level patient and community advisory boards, and nurture partnerships between practices and community-based organizations. Regional multi-stakeholder coalitions can also encourage and motivate payers’ financial support of disparities-focused QI efforts at practices.

Healthcare organizations collected clinical performance data stratified by patient’s race, ethnicity, and language (REL). Disparities are ideally identified with REL-stratified performance data. The success of specific interventions can be measured by their impact on the same REL-stratified data. The AF4Q initiative provided intensive technical assistance to collect REL data in hospitals and practices. These efforts raised awareness of equity as an issue of quality and initiated analysis of disparities, especially in hospitals.

Equity was emphasized as an important goal in program messaging. The programmatic materials and models of the AF4Q initiative used to inform alliance-level activities routinely stress the importance of equity in healthcare. Although many practice leaders were initially unwilling to prioritize equity over competing demands, this messaging provided a foundation for eventually promoting disparities reduction activities.

Hospital collaboratives addressed equity concerns. Four different hospital collaboratives have included disparities-related data collection as an activity for participants: the Equity Quality Improvement Collaborative, Language Quality Improvement Collaborative, Hospital Quality Network, and Transforming Care at the Bedside. The majority of hospital teams participating in these collaboratives collected REL data, and some have stratified QI measures by REL (personal communication: Marcia Wilson, PhD,

MBA, and Christina Rowland, MPH, April 10, 2012). The Equity Quality Improvement Collaborative and the Language Quality Improvement Collaborative also began actively incorporating equity into their QI activities by identifying and testing strategies for disparities reduction in selected measures.5,6

AF4Q Initiative’s Challenges for Reducing Disparities

Several challenges to reduce disparities emerged from the AF4Q initiative, which in hindsight related to late and limited ambulatory disparities reduction efforts:

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Issue: The Aligning Forces for Quality Initiative: Early Lessons From Efforts to Improve Healthcare Quality at the Community Level
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