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Healthcare's game-changers

Students in a new master’s program examine the entire healthcare system.

It’s no secret that the U.S. healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired. We spend far more on healthcare than any other country, yet our patient outcomes are no better. In fact, it has been estimated that 20 to 30 percent of medical spending – roughly $700 billion a year – yields no benefit to patients.

Much of this waste is driven by defensive medicine, like redundant or unnecessary tests and procedures, and by inefficient healthcare administration. Little attention, however, has been paid to restructuring the healthcare system to reduce this inefficiency.

That’s something that the graduates of the new master of engineering in Healthcare Systems Engineering (HSE) program are hoping to change. Housed in the department of industrial and systems engineering, the program aims to use these principles to improve and streamline the medical system.

“The idea of looking at the entire system is going to benefit the healthcare system tremendously,” says Jeremy Benton, a student in the program who graduated from Lehigh in 2011 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

“For example, you might have a bottleneck in the waiting room and a $30 million CT scanning machine sitting idle. All you need to do is add another receptionist, but because the CT room never talks to the waiting room, they don’t understand why they’re idle. An industrial engineer can model the whole situation and find the bottleneck.”

Technology is another way to improve communication, says Denise Campion, an HSE student who has a bachelor’s degree in operations management from Pennsylvania State University and a certificate in project management from Lehigh.

“You can put technology behind solutions, like notifying patients on their mobile devices that the doctor is running an hour late instead of having them sit in the waiting room getting angrier and angrier,” she says.

While many students in the program have backgrounds in business or engineering, like Benton and Campion, others come from the medical field. They know the frustrations of the current system firsthand.

Take Kristen Tellez, for example. She graduated from Penn State in 2010 with a degree in biobehavioral health – a combination of disciplines like psychology and biology that focuses on preventive medicine.

Tellez spent a semester as a nurse at a hospital and planned to apply to an accelerated nursing program, but she was frustrated by how inefficient the hospital was. The HSE program stood out to her because it combines basic clinical knowledge with systems engineering principles.

“Engineering is a totally different way of thinking, and it’s really needed in healthcare,” she says. “People on the clinical side think about what’s best for the patient but may not think about the financial aspect, whereas people in healthcare administration mostly think about costs and saving money. With systems engineering, you can run models to get the optimal answer to the problem before you implement a solution.”

Sarah Creswell, a registered nurse in the program, shares Tellez’s perspective.

“It’s sometimes frustrating when you work in healthcare and you keep being restricted,” says Creswell. “I never liked the answer ‘that’s just the way it is.’ I like the idea of improving the healthcare system so that healthcare professionals can do the right thing the right way for the right reason.”

Terry Theman, a retired cardiac surgeon who practiced at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem for 28 years, agrees that systems engineering offers the solution.

“Engineering takes a different approach. It looks at all the components, breaks them into separate units and then starts asking the important questions,” he says.

“I can see it streamlining healthcare and making it more effective. The Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 100,000 patients die every year in America from medical errors. Some of those are preventable, and one of our missions is to reduce those to the absolute minimum.”

With their new knowledge in areas like queuing theory, statistical modeling and optimization, the HSE students hope to find jobs with hospital networks, health insurers and consulting firms, and in other areas of healthcare. From there, they will play a central role in making the U.S. healthcare system more efficient and more cost-effective.