by Marianne Aiello
It may not seem like there is any difference between being treated by a private practice physician or a North End Community Health Center doctor—but there often is. The Health Center is accredited by the Joint Commission, and in doing so, must follow a wide array of high-quality patient care and safety standards that private practices outside of a facility setting are not required to follow.
In fact, in 1997, the North End Community Health Center was the first community health center in Massachusetts to ever receive Joint Commission accreditation.
The Joint Commission is an independent, not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies more than 18,000 health care entities in the United States. Joint Commission accreditation is widely recognized as a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.
While the Joint Commission has been accrediting hospitals since 1951, it launched a pilot program in the late 1990s to determine if it would be possible to certify community health centers. The North End Community Health Center leadership eagerly decided to participate in the program.
“It was a big undertaking,” says John Foster, MD, chief medical officer for the health center. “We had a huge manual of requirements to fulfill and only six weeks to satisfy the standards. Most of the time organizations have one to two years to work on accreditation.”
When surveying a hospital or health center to determine if it worthy of certification, the Joint Commission examines several aspects of the organization, such as patient care quality, patient safety, administrative functions, community relations, and other policies and procedures. A team of seasoned surveyors usually spends several days doing the survey, which can be a very rigorous process.
“The North End Community Health Center was one of a handful of health centers which led the way to help the Joint Commission develop appropriate standards of care for the ambulatory setting that are now used across the country,” Foster says. “To volunteer ourselves to have this scrutiny was taking a chance, but we were confident that we could be a leader in that process, and we have maintained that status.”
Since becoming the first community health center in the state to receive accreditation in 1997, the organization has successfully completed four additional Joint Commission surveys.
“Though a difficult process, the health center welcomes the Joint Commission survey every three years to tell us how we are doing,” Foster says. “This should assure the community that we are providing a top-to-bottom tight organization with the best services.”
Because private physician offices aren’t Joint Commission accredited, certain areas of their practice may not be as scrutinized as they are at accredited hospitals and health centers.
For example, when conducting a survey the Joint Commission checks that a health center has systems in place that ensure no expired products or medications are in stock, that there are extensive safety and disaster drills in place, and that administration follows strict employee credentialing and background checks. Most private practices have no formal obligation to meet those same standards.
“The community should feel confident in using us knowing that we voluntarily submit ourselves to such scrutiny,” Foster says. “This is something that doesn’t happen with most private practices. Patients that entrust their care to us should know that we follow patient care and safety standards that others aren’t required to look at.”
“For example, it may sound simple to make sure all products you use are within expiration dates—but think of your own home, your cupboards, drawers, and medicine cabinets,” he says. “Do you have a system for finding all products that may be out of date throughout your house? Do you have proper disposal of expired products that might be dangerous to dispose in the trash? The Joint Commission process requires these type things to be fully worked out for patient safety.”
Overall, participating in the Joint Commission accreditation process has resulted in the North End Community Health Center providing the best possible care for its patients.
“We continually measure and assess operations over time to look for areas for improvement,” Foster says. “These are all ways Joint Commission accreditation makes the health center confident that we are providing comprehensive care across the board, the same way it is done in hospitals.”