Quality isn’t a choice for caregivers at Charleston (W.Va.) Area Medical Center Health System, it’s an unconditional necessity.

The winner of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the health care category, Charleston Area Medical Center is the largest nongovernmental employer in its region, and is an important regional provider of Level I trauma care, neonatal and pediatric intensive care, kidney transplants and a host of other services.

“We are key to the community, the economy, the business climate, the workforce, and more,” says David Ramsey, president and CEO. “We just feel an absolute responsibility to be the best we can be.”

The system operates four hospitals, a foundation, a health and education research institute, and physician clinics — all of which, according to the Baldrige Awards committee, work together to provide top-notch quality, patient safety and strategic direction. The awards, announced in December, will be presented in April.

The journey to the award was long, Ramsey acknowledged, but remarkably valuable. “We started learning about Baldrige 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s taken us 10 years to get to this point. The Baldrige framework gave us an opportunity to engage the entire organization. So, the award is a nice validation for the quality system we’ve been able to instill.”

The system has been focused on quality for a long time and has used a number of different methods to attain and maintain high quality, says Dale Wood, vice president and chief quality officer. “Back around 2000, we invested in the Six Sigma improvement methodology,” he says. The organization also turned to a local Toyota plant in West Virginia to teach it the fundamentals of the company’s Lean production processes. That initiative became CAMCHS’ Transforming Care Together campaign, which broadened involvement in the quality initiatives to every employee.

All of which helps to drive the process-oriented strategy that starts at the board level and works its way throughout the organization, says Brenda Grant, chief strategy officer. The strategy starts with a four-year plan, with the board and management identifying five key quality improvement initiatives to concentrate on each year, Grant explains.

“Then the units use those five overarching initiatives to figure out for themselves their own five goals,” she says. “If you go to a physicians' practice, you’ll see their top five; it’s shorthand for the overall improvement process.”

In a physician office, for example, “you’ll see a metric like getting patients in to see the doctor within three days of their initial call. That’s tied directly to the bigger system goal of improving customer service.”

The ability of the health system to integrate its strategy and improvement goals as deeply as it does was a major proof point for the Baldrige Award. “What we expect to see is an organization that is high-performing in a lot of areas,” says Robert Fangmeyer, director of NIST’s Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. “What we saw with CAMCHS was the complete package: outcomes, patient satisfaction, an overall patient focus, workforce development and creating an engaged workforce.”