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How Engineers Are Transforming Healthcare Systems Analysis in Hospitals

Engineer looking at data through a transparent medium.

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Technological advances have altered almost every part of our lives — from how we communicate to the news we read and from how we use transportation to how we order takeout. One area that the average person still underappreciates is the technology-led revolution that has only begun to influence the health care industry. If used correctly, technology and analytical tools with unprecedented power (such as artificial intelligence and machine learning) will reduce costs, extend the reach of health care services, and save lives. But to ensure that capability is realized during this formative period of transformation, experts are needed who are well-versed in both technology and health care. In other words, the new health care system will need healthcare systems engineers.

Healthcare systems engineers represent an important part of the engine that is going to drive health care forward. They will streamline processes, improve the way patients receive treatment, and develop efficiencies to reduce costs. In part, they will do this by pulling into their analytical orbits dozens of relevant variables to test and examine. Not long ago, most everyone seeking to enhance health care processes had the capability to focus on only a few such variables.

Can engineers work in healthcare?

Within the burgeoning role of health systems, engineers are already working with providers, health care facilities, regulatory agencies, administrators, social services, academia, biomedical researchers and the public to look at the complex health care system as a whole and bring changes that will optimize performance.

“Healthcare systems engineers are specialists, bringing knowledge, skills, and tools to bear in distinct ways that are unlikely to be included in many organizational change initiatives otherwise,” says Richard Biehl, former education coordinator of University of Central Florida’s Healthcare Systems Engineering online program. “Systems engineers are educated and trained to focus on the system as a whole, and to implement changes in components that actually optimize the whole system. It’s the synthesis of all of that knowledge with systems thinking that will improve our healthcare system for the future.”

The best way to illustrate how healthcare systems engineers are poised to change health care for the better is to look at some of the ways their work stands to revolutionize the industry. Below are just a few examples.

Healthcare Engineers Improve Efficiency & Reduce Costs

“We know that an efficient optimized system will operate at its lowest cost,” says Biehl. “To improve systems, we usually look for disruptions at the system level.”

One such disruption to drive efficiency could happen in the hospital bed management system, says the 38-year information technology veteran. More efficient bed management has the potential both to reduce wait times by getting sick patients into a bed faster and to discharge people faster, shortening the length of their stay. Health care systems engineers are the specialists who could bring the knowledge, skills and tools to bear on such a system improvement in an impactful way, considering variables unlikely to be addressed by other organizational change initiatives.

How Healthcare Engineers Help with Doctor Shortages

A 2016 study published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a shortfall of as many as 94,700 physicians by 2025. The AAMC points to an aging population as one of the main causes for the shortage.

“Making sure there’s an adequate supply of health care in the right places, in the right specialties, and at the right times, is a health care systems engineering challenge,” Biehl says. “Systemically, we’re already addressing the problem in several ways. First, we’re rethinking the provision of care so that more of it can be provided by professionals not traditionally seen as doctors. This is one reason we use the term provider rather than physician (or doctor), because increasingly the person providing care isn’t a physician. This spreading of care across a broader sector that includes stakeholders outside of hospitals and physician practices dramatically increases the system’s capacity even though the number of doctors is declining.”

He adds that healthcare systems engineers are also working to cut waste — for example, the time taken up by unnecessary procedures — and reapplying that capacity to increase the capabilities of the health care system.

Healthcare Engineers Create Systems So Doctors Can Focus on Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that nearly half of American adults suffer from chronic diseases, which cause 7 out of 10 deaths in the country each year. The CDC stresses that “focusing on preventing disease and illness before they occur will create healthier homes, workplaces, schools and communities so that people can live long and productive lives and reduce their health care costs.”

In a way, it really is as simple as it sounds: Doctors have always known that the best way to achieve a healthier population is to find a way to encourage people to live healthier lives — that is, to prevent illnesses from cropping up in the first place rather than treating their symptoms when they appear. Healthcare systems engineers will be able to help the health care system truly move the focus to the prevention side of the equation.

“As a philosophy, we’re moving toward the patient making a lot more decisions about their own care and being more actively engaged with that care,” Biehl says. “This aligns well with the fact that more and more of these wearable medical devices are out there with the patient.”

The data gathered from such devices can empower the health care system — with the help of engineers — to substantially improve its ability to track how certain behaviors lead to certain health outcomes (and warn patients to improve their behaviors before it’s too late).

We are in a moment in which the health care industry — even more than other businesses — is long overdue for disruptions that will improve the experience of both patients and providers.