North Mississippi Health Services in Tupelo spent the better part of two years perfecting its practices, looking to score a prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation's highest presidential honor for companies that embrace continuous performance improvement. But after winning in late 2012, it wasn't really the award that mattered the most.

The six-hospital, community-owned health system subjected itself to hundreds of hours of review by Baldrige examiners, and finely tuned itself in seven categories of performance excellence, among them leadership, strategic planning and customer focus. In the end, the true award was their swimmingly efficient hospital system, says Karen Koch, administrator for organizational performance.

"Where you're going to get the most benefit is really not from the award — though I'm not lying, it's a lot of fun," she says. "The important thing is when you have those 'Aha' moments when you realize where your gaps are, when you realize how you could make improvements in all of your processes, more emphasis on listening to your customers, better communication, being more comprehensive. That's where the genuine benefits arise."

NMHS was the lone health care organization to snag the designation out of 25 that applied in the category last year, as hospitals increasingly see the benefits of the process. A 2011 report by Thomson Reuters noted that providers that have won or made the final cut for the award outperform other hospitals in all but one metric of the criteria Reuters uses to name its "100 Top Hospitals."
All told, 16 hospitals or health systems have won the award since health care was added as a category in 1999. Maury Regional Medical Center, in Columbia, Tenn., also was cited in 2012 for its strategic planning and workforce focus, although it didn't earn Baldrige designation.

"Their ability to engage all stakeholders in the community to improve performance serves as an example for our field as hospitals across the country continuously pursue better outcomes for the patients they serve," American Hospital Association President and CEO Rich Umbdenstock said of the two honorees in a statement.

NMHS previously won a Baldrige in 2006, but only for its flagship hospital, North Mississippi Medical Center. CEO John Heer says that application was a practice run for the provider, and it had to wait six years under Baldrige rules to apply again.

Improvements it made this time around include: instituting an "Ideas for Excellence" program that captures suggestions from employees; focusing on patient safety and specifically reducing central line-associated blood stream infections in intensive care; and developing its Physician Leadership Institute to bolster the management skills of its doctors. A healthy organizational culture, fostered by communication and transparency, was one of the keys to the transformation, Heer says.

With all the ambiguity and constant change in health care, the CEO thinks that the Baldrige criteria help providers prepare for whatever may come next.

"In today's environment, with all the uncertainty coming out of Washington and the industry itself, you have to be extremely agile," Heer says. "And I think the Baldrige process forces you to be very agile, and to be able to spin on a dime and make changes as you're going along."