Defining Flow

Posted by BestPractices on June 6 2011

After a combined half-century study of the concept of flow, we have come to at least one ironclad conclusion: Words matter! By this we mean that, properly used, words communicate some combination of data, knowledge, or wisdom, which, taken together, help guide our efforts and those for whom we are responsible as health care leaders. Specifically, it is essential that we use our words with precision, so that there will be clarity with regard to what is meant, what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and whenever appropriate, how it needs to be done.

Into this mindset comes the increasingly important concept of the flow of patients through our hospitals and health care systems. With the importance of the precision of words and the weight they carry in mind, we enter into somewhat perilous waters when it comes to defining flow. On the one hand, it is a widely used and commonly understood term. Yet on the other hand, it is a term that has been poorly and inconsistently defined. We ourselves have defined flow previously, but we believe that previous definitions of flow are not as helpful as our current thinking is on this subject. Many people say, “I may not be able to define flow, but I know both when it is there-and when it isn’t!” More to the point, our patients know when flow is there-and when it isn’t. The term flow is used almost with an inherent assumption that we understand its meaning, even if it hasn’t been precisely defined.

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