Northwestern University
Feinberg School of Medicine

New Program Developing Quality Improvement Leaders

A new program within Northwestern Medicine® is working to equip healthcare professionals with the knowledge and skills to become leaders of quality improvement initiatives.   

The Academy for Quality and Safety Improvement (AQSI), a collaboration between the Department of Medicine, the Center for Healthcare Studies, and the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Process Improvement Department, is a novel approach to meeting the oftentimes significant gap in quality and process improvement expertise among staff and clinicians, a gap that persists nationwide. 

“This program helps build a foundation of quality improvement and knowledge that will benefit Northwestern Medicine over time in many ways,” said Kevin O'Leary, MD, associate chair for quality in medicine and AQSI director at Feinberg. “Physicians, nurses, and other professionals will be better equipped to identify issues related to quality and collaboratively address them through implementation of innovative, well-designed interventions.” 

Comprised of 22 members from the Department of Medicine, the first cohort of participants worked on five self-developed projects from October to March. The 10 classroom sessions – each focused on a quality improvement topic – culminated with project presentations on March 14. Receiving their certifications of completion in early April, the teams will be featured during a departmental research event in May. 

AQSI is designed to offer training to healthcare professionals – attendings, fellows, residents, nurses, technicians, administrators – by pairing didactic work with team-based, experiential learning, and requires participants to execute a quality improvement project and apply the concepts and methods learned. Each team is paired with a process improvement coach from Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a clinical quality leader from the medical school to provide additional mentorship in the execution of their project. 

“As residents and fellows, I think many of us encounter situations that we feel we can make better. However, we do not get any training in quality improvement,” said Priya Vellanki, a second-year fellow in endocrinology, metabolism, and molecular medicine. “This course taught us how to formally work through developing a quality improvement project and provide tools to implement it successfully.” 

Jane Holl, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Healthcare Studies, helped mold the coursework for AQSI as part of the steering committee and as the instructor of the session on teamwork. 

Kristi Hanson, process improvement leader at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, talks to class members during the final class of the Academy for Quality and Safety Improvement.

“There is a tremendous need for healthcare systems and processes to be assessed and redesigned and most institutions do not currently and never will be able to have enough process improvement engineers or staff to address all of the needs,” said Holl, Mary Harris Thompson, MD, Professor. “The AQSI program is novel in that it permits a clinical team of staff and clinicians to obtain formal, didactic training in quality, safety, and process improvement while simultaneously conducting a real time process improvement project.”      

Paul Hutchison, a second-year pulmonary and critical care medicine fellow, and his group worked on a project to avoid unnecessary use of dialysis in the intensive care unit. 

“The objective was to try to reduce the use of renal replacement therapy for patients for whom it would not improve outcomes,” said Hutchison. “In order to accomplish this goal, house staff and nurses were trained to have conversations with surrogate decision-makers about time-limited trials of renal replacement therapy.” 

Initially offered only to members of the Department of Medicine, AQSI will widen its reach by partnering with one or two additional departments in its second year, with plans to expand more broadly in the future. The application process for the next cohort will open in late spring or early summer. 

“We were really impressed with the broad range of projects on which this first class worked, and are thrilled to see them graduate,” O’Leary said. “These individuals were impressive to begin with and now they have a new set of skills to improve care for their patients.” 

For more information on AQSI, please contact Jessica Thurk, manager of faculty development, Department of Medicine, at jthurk@northwestern@edu.  For more information on FY13 shared goals or general quality improvement/process improvement training, please contact Mark Schumacher, director of performance improvement, at