When he was just 7 years old, grad­u­ating senior Kendall Sanderson’s mother was diag­nosed with breast cancer. The tumor needed to be removed with emer­gency surgery, according to her son, but com­pli­ca­tions in the hospital’s sched­uling pro­tocol forced a three-​​week delay in the procedure.

To the indus­trial engi­neering major, one of the most fas­ci­nating prob­lems to solve is the effi­cient routing of delivery trucks around the country. When Sanderson learned he could apply this skill to the health­care industry to pre­vent mis­takes like those made with his mother, he knew he’d found his calling.

During his second year at North­eastern, Sanderson began working in the Health­care Sys­tems Engi­neering Insti­tute and National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion health­care center of James Ben­neyan, a pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering with an hon­orary joint appoint­ment in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. There, he learned about the tragedy of the health­care system: “It’s a $3 tril­lion industry,” Sanderson said, “and about 30 per­cent of that can be attrib­uted to inef­fi­cient, poorly designed processes.”

Through his three co-​​op assign­ments and inde­pen­dent research projects with Ben­neyan, Sanderson tai­lored his skillset to the under­ap­pre­ci­ated field of health­care sys­tems engi­neering. Instead of delivery truck routes, he’s con­sid­ering patient flow through hos­pi­tals. Instead of man­u­fac­turing product supply and demand, he’s con­sid­ering the ideal number of beds to place in a clinic.

At Boston’s Veteran’s Admin­is­tra­tion Hos­pital, Sanderson got his first taste of what it’s like to be an engi­neer in a world dom­i­nated by physi­cians and clin­i­cians, whose main goal is to heal patients rather than effi­ciently move them around the hos­pital. In addi­tion to turning the nursing supply closets into spread­sheets of data that could be ana­lyzed and opti­mized, Sanderson assisted with process improve­ment work­shops for the hos­pital employees to imple­ment stan­dard effi­ciency pro­to­cols on their own.

For his second co-​​op, Sanderson spent two months man­u­ally tracking all of the patient and clin­i­cian activity in the pedi­atric floor at Dana Farber Cancer Insti­tute. Every 15 min­utes he’d take note of where patients were—in the waiting room, say, or in a hos­pital room with a nurse. He turned his notes into a mas­sive data­base that he used to model patient flow on the floor. With that kind of model in hand, he could iden­tify the areas most often over­crowded or under-​​utilized and the best solu­tions to address them.

At Dana Farber, he also worked on a pilot study that auto­mat­i­cally tracked that same infor­ma­tion using sen­sors embedded in the clinic’s roof and tracking devices car­ried by patients during their visits. Imple­menting that system on a large scale would be an expen­sive under­taking, Sanderson explained, but the invest­ment would be worth the cost if it could deliver suf­fi­cient waste savings.

Sanderson’s work earned him one of 17 university’s Out­standing Coop­er­a­tive Edu­ca­tion Awards this spring as well as the Society for Health Sys­tems under­grad­uate schol­ar­ship, which is offered each year to one stu­dent in the country. He plans to join Benneyan’s new $8 mil­lion CMS center as a master’s degree can­di­date in the fall and to con­tinue making the health­care world more effi­cient over the course of his career.

His mother, who sur­vived her bout of breast cancer, is no doubt quite proud.