The United States’ floun­dering health-​​care system, which wastes some $760 bil­lion each year, is among the country’s biggest chal­lenges, said indus­trial engi­neering and oper­a­tions research pro­fessor pro­fessor James Ben­neyan, director of Northeastern’s health-​​care sys­tems engi­neering pro­gram.

Speaking at the Health Care Improve­ment Scholars Meeting in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Wednesday, Ben­neyan told some 75 physi­cians, post­doc­toral stu­dents and patient-​​safety fel­lows of the New Eng­land Vet­erans Engi­neering Resource Center, “The health-​​care system is broken and in a state of crisis. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.”

The two-​​day con­fer­ence focused on solving the health-​​care crisis by using the prin­ci­ples of sys­tems engi­neering to opti­mize treat­ment, patient safety and quality of care. Northeastern’s health-​​care sys­tems engi­neering pro­gram — which aims to improve effi­ciency, safety and access to health care in much the same way air­line com­pa­nies opti­mize their oper­a­tions — spon­sored the event.

A number of stu­dents in the pro­gram pre­sented cost-​​cutting math­e­mat­ical solu­tions for allo­cating med­ical resources, opti­mizing hos­pital inven­tory and designing physi­cians’ daily sched­ules. As Ben­neyan put it, “Sev­enty per­cent of all prob­lems can be solved with basic methods that offer con­tin­uous quality improvement.”

Ben­neyan also directs the engi­neering resource center and National Sci­ence Foundation-​​funded Center for Health Orga­ni­za­tion Trans­for­ma­tion, a multi-​​university health-​​care sys­tems engi­neering research center that con­ducts applied research on solu­tions to prob­lems of common interest throughout the field.

David Luzzi, dean of the Col­lege of Engi­neering, praised North­eastern stu­dents and fac­ulty for using engi­neering prin­ci­pals to solve the health-​​care crisis. “It’s really great to bring the human ele­ment into engi­neering,” he said.

Physi­cians, research fel­lows and direc­tors of patient-​​safety pro­grams who attended the con­fer­ence said engi­neering models could help cure the ailing health-​​care system.

Using engi­neering con­cepts in prac­tical ways to improve patient safety makes a lot of sense,” said Peter Mills, the director of the field office for the VA National Center for Patient Safety, in White River Junc­tion, Vermont.

Tom Rust, a research fellow for the engi­neering resource center who made a pre­sen­ta­tion on the Vet­erans Affairs com­pen­sa­tion and pen­sion process, agreed.

The pre­sen­ta­tions pro­vided a good mix of case study and theory,” he said. “Engi­neering tools could be used in many dif­ferent areas of a hospital.”

Prob­lems in health-​​care, he said, must be solved using inter­dis­ci­pli­nary methods. “Most prob­lems and solu­tions, including safety, cost and quality of care, are silent,” Rust said. “We’ll get better results if we form a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary response to these problems.”

Clin­i­cians must be made aware of the ben­e­fits of tack­ling health-​​care from an engi­neering point of view, said Tricia Wood­head, a physi­cian from Eng­land on a one-​​year fel­low­ship for the Insti­tute for Health-​​care Improvement.

We have to remember that health-​​care is about people,” she said, “not about machines.”