“It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career,” says Nina Willingham, senior executive director at Life Care Center of Sarasota (Fla.), of her center’s 2013 Gold National Quality Award from the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL).
Although the process was incredibly challenging and time-consuming, Willingham couldn’t be happier with the results. “The journey has been amazing,” she told reporters last month at the AHCA/NCAL Convention & Expo in Phoenix. “The outcomes we experienced and the success of our organization are directly related to the [award process]. It has been a journey of pleasure, and we are so thrilled to be at this point in it.”
Willingham was joined in Phoenix by Christina Haupt, administrator at St. Mary’s Care Center of Winsted, Minn.—another AHCA/NCAL Gold recipient. Both were on hand to discuss their respective journeys to the gold.
St. Mary’s and Life Care Center of Sarasota were two of this year’s five Gold recipients. The other three Gold achievers were: Golden LivingCenter—Tarboro, in Tarboro, N.C.; Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center in Lenox, Mass.; and Linda Manor Extended Care Facility in Leeds, Mass.
For Haupt, the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program criteria, which the AHCA/NCAL Quality Award program adheres to, makes the difference between a good center and a great center, even for providers who may be happy with a five-star rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Much More Than A Five-Star Rating

“For those who are seemingly already high performers, I would say you don’t know the depth of your own organization until you embark on the [Quality Award] process,” she says. “Until you hear from people outside your building, other than regulators— what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well—it’s easy to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing well, and here’s where we’re at.’ But when someone else can tell you that, it’s a far more powerful thing.”

Kimball FarmsWillingham agrees. “We’ve always been a good building, but with Baldrige we began to measure so much more than we had measured before, and our results kept showing consistent improvement,” she said.

“Even when we had a little glitch or setback, we were able to pinpoint it through root-cause analysis or by doing anything that we could do with our associates to get us to the point of understanding why we might have had that little glitch. The award is lovely, and it’s so nice to be recognized, but it’s the journey.”

Speaking at the briefing alongside the two Gold achievers was Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer of AHCA/NCAL, who noted that the Quality Award Program is “the most important work that we do, and the accomplishment of the folks that have received the Gold Awards is phenomenal.”

Moreover, Parkinson continued, when one considers the many negative things that “are happening out there every day in the real world, to hear the stories of what these people have done to get themselves to that level is really compelling, and it is extremely challenging to receive the award they received.”

“It is not a PR effort,” he stressed. “It is a for-real effort to change the metrics in America’s skilled nursing centers.”

Linda ManorAt Once Challenging And Rewarding

For Life Care Center of Sarasota, the process of achieving a Bronze, then a Silver, and then a Gold award has incentivized staff to become more and more innovative.

“They come up with new ways of doing things all the time,” Willingham says. “Had we not participated in [AHCA/NCAL Quality Award process and] Baldrige, I don’t think that we would be where we are. We would still be a good facility, but we wouldn’t be the facility of distinction that we sought to be.”

According to AHCA/NCAL, the Gold—Excellence in Quality, award is the most prestigious of the program. It requires care centers to previously achieve both the Bronze—Commitment to Quality, and Silver—Achievement in Quality, awards and adheres to the rigorous criteria outlined in the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.

St. Mary'sThe Gold award is designed to elicit best practices from recipients in the areas of leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, process management, and results.

Since the inception of the National Quality Award program in 1996, only 18 care centers have achieved this level of quality recognition.

The total number of recipients this year reached 350—including Bronze, Silver, and Gold. ■