BACKGROUND: This last Microsystems in Health Care series article focuses on what it takes, in the short term and long term, for clinical microsystems--the small, functional, front-line units that provide the most health care to the most people--to attain peak performance. CASE STUDY: A case study featuring the intensive care nursery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center illustrates the 10-year evolution of a clinical microsystem. Related evolutionary principles begin with the intention to excel, involve all the players, use measurement and feedback, and create a learning system. DISCUSSION: A microsystem's typical developmental journey toward excellence entails five stages of growth--awareness as an interdependent group with the capacity to make changes, connecting routine daily work to the high purpose of benefiting patients, responding successfully to strategic challenges, measuring the microsystem's performance as a system, and juggling improvements while taking care of patients. A MODEL CURRICULUM: Health system leaders can sponsor an action-learning program to catalyze development of clinical microsystems. A "green-belt curriculum" can help clinical staff members acquire the fundamental knowledge and skills that they will need to master if they are to increase their capacity to attain higher levels of performance; uses action-learning theory and sound education principles to provide the opportunity to learn, test, and gain some degree of mastery; and involves people in the challenging real work of improving.
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