Physician MBA research on improving clinic wait times delivers first-of-its-kind value in ophthalmology journal

When he signed up for a course on operations while enrolled in the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business, ophthalmologist Tom Ciulla, MD, MBA’15, was skeptical. He imagined being taught more efficient ways to make widgets in a factory.

“On its face, operations could seem quite dry and inapplicable to my everyday work,” he said.

But during the course taught by Mohan V. Tatikonda, professor of operations management, Dr. Ciulla was tasked with creating a practical project to reduce waste and enhance patient experiences in his Midwest Eye Institute practice. He teamed up with fellow physician MBAs to undertake an important initiative: reduce wait times for patients in his clinic.

Under the supervision of Tatikonda, Dr. Ciulla employed Lean Six Sigma process-improvement approaches to achieve this ambitious goal.

“Often in a clinic, there’s a lot of motion and time waste—such as staff traveling multiple times across the clinic and patients waiting. Our goal was to examine and address some of this waste and variability, which slows down the process and creates a ripple effect throughout the rest of the clinic,” explained Dr. Ciulla.

In the end, the team slashed patient visit times by 18 percent and improved both patient and employee satisfaction, without cutting valuable patient-provider contact time.

Dr. Ciulla says these benefits are “especially enormous when considered in the aggregate.”

His clinic schedule of 40 patients per day translates to about 10,000 patient visits a year. Patients will save more than 3,000 hours a year from the improvements.

Dr. Ciulla adds, “If similar approaches are implemented across entire healthcare systems, the benefits aggregate even further, achieving the holy grail of improved healthcare delivery and satisfaction at little marginal cost.”

Dr. Ciulla recently published his findings in Retina, one of the foremost peer-reviewed journals within ophthalmology.

“While this project is a textbook example from a manufacturing standpoint, it delivers new knowledge in Dr. Ciulla’s discipline and some other healthcare areas,” said Tatikonda. “That’s one reason this paper was accepted at such a prominent journal. Dr. Ciulla showed healthcare delivery can be improved—and significantly—without major expense.”

Dr. Ciulla showed healthcare delivery can be improved—and significantly—without major expense.

Mohan V. Tatikonda, professor of operations management
Tom Ciulla, MD, MBA'15, sees a patient at his ophthalmology clinic.

“What I found very interesting throughout this project: If you involve the staff and make them part of the project, they become intrinsically motivated by the improvement process,” said Dr. Ciulla. “While it’s a means for improving patient care and clinic operations, it’s also a way to better lead, manage and engage staff in a way that inspires them to take a great deal of pride in the improvement.”

Tatikonda says these projects help his physician MBA students develop a different mindset and approach to management.

“What some see as a one-time improvement project is far more than that,” he said. “This has the potential to influence the entire organizational culture. Physicians build on the experience and continue with further organizational and cultural changes. Dr. Ciulla has already taken on other changes in his clinic based on these approaches, benefiting his patients and staff and helping him gain even more physician leadership experiences.”

Both Dr. Ciulla and Tatikonda say the healthcare landscape overall is ripe for process improvement. An industry that has only recently moved to electronic records, healthcare is often seen as lagging behind other fields in business improvement and innovation—something research like this aims to remediate.

I sought to publish this research because I recognized a knowledge deficit in my field of ophthalmology and, potentially, other medical fields.

Dr. Tom Ciulla, MD, MBA'15