Applying Engineering to Healthcare: A Northeastern University Professor’s Innovative Approach to Improving the Healthcare Industry

Posted by erik devaney

Some of the toughest problems facing the healthcare industry today cannot be tackled on the front lines of patient care. Nurses and physicians cannot solve such problems at the bedsides of patients. Instead, as a Northeastern University professor contends, systems engineers can solve these complex healthcare problems using computers.

James Benneyan, the director of Northeastern’s Center of Health Organization Transformation, points to six specific areas where a systems engineering approach could help the healthcare industry. These areas, as he outlined at a recent Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) meeting, are safety, efficiency, effectiveness, patient-centeredness, equity and timeliness.

According to Benneyan, America’s already troubled healthcare system is only getting worse. And throwing more money at the problem won’t necessarily help. As Benneyan points out, approximately 30% of healthcare costs, which represents about $760 billion, is wasted each year.

Benneyan’s strategy for improving healthcare: create computer models of problems and test solutions.

“Some of the biggest opportunities for computer modeling are in macro system issues and policy,” Benneyan told New England Post. “…some of these are in better understanding incentive and reimbursement systems to drive improvement, clinical capacity and decision making, and variance reduction.”

Specifically, Benneyan believes that by applying principles used in high-performing industries (like the auto industry), the healthcare industry can reduce variability in processes, practices and people. Benneyan uses the Toyota Production System as an example. Through process simplification, standardization and the reduction of inefficiency, which the Toyota Production System outlines, the healthcare system could minimize errors and give workers more time to interact with patients.

But Benneyan isn’t all talk; he’s already put his ideas on computer modeling and healthcare to the test.

“Years ago we modeled the (then) federally mandated policy for cervical cancer screening and showed how it could be significantly improved,” Benneyan told New England Post. The end results were “more precancerous detections, fewer false positives, and overall lower costs by roughly half a billion dollars annually.”

More recently, Benneyan’s computer modeling “helped the VA determine the optimal amount of capacity for various specialities they should have distributed across New England to improve access and reduce costs.”

And just this past summer, Benneyan used computer models to help Mass Eye and Ear determine master space needs for their new building and to help Brigham and Women’s hospital make the best use of their space and computer needs in order to support the roll-out of electronic medical records.

For more information on Benneyan and his healthcare systems engineering work, you can visit his profile page on the Northeastern University website.

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Posted by erik devaney on Oct 18 2011. Filed under Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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