Health­care sys­tems in the U.S. are a mess in every dimen­sion,” said pro­fessor James Ben­neyan, founder and director of Northeastern’s Health­care Sys­tems Engi­neering Insti­tute.

In opening remarks at the annual Health­care Improve­ment Scholars Meeting on Tuesday at North­eastern, Ben­neyan noted that part of the solu­tion to fixing the floun­dering health­care system lies in the col­lab­o­ra­tion of  health­care improve­ment experts. “That’s why we’re here,” he said, “to share, learn, and cross-​​pollinate.”

HSyE hosted the meeting. Infor­mally renamed the “Gath­ering of the Fel­lows” two years ago, the event brings together health­care fel­low­ship recip­i­ents with exper­tise ranging from policy and man­age­ment to patient safety and quality improvement.

The two-​​day con­fer­ence focused on solving the health­care crisis by using the prin­ci­ples of sys­tems engi­neering to opti­mize treat­ment, patient safety, and quality of care. Day one began with a series of pre­sen­ta­tions and panel dis­cus­sions cov­ering a range of fel­low­ship research projects, from phar­macy work­flow, surgery errors, and PTSD screening poli­cies to the design of health­care system networks.

At North­eastern we’re trying to inte­grate the sys­tems engi­neering approach fur­ther into health­care and more directly con­nect our work with other leaders,” said Ben­neyan. He noted that one-​​third of the $3 tril­lion annual fed­eral health­care budget could be attrib­uted to the types of inef­fi­cien­cies and poor designs that are ripe for sys­tems engi­neering solutions.

Sev­eral of Benneyan’s grad­uate stu­dents pre­sented their work at the meeting as past engi­neering fel­lows of Vet­erans Health Admin­is­tra­tion, a training pro­gram he helped the VA launch sev­eral years ago. For instance, Serpil Mutlu and Rachel Miller pre­sented a math­e­mat­ical opti­miza­tion solu­tion that increases a patient’s access to a familiar pri­mary care­givers by as much as 20 per­cent at no addi­tional cost. Cur­rently being piloted at Cam­bridge Health Alliance, this solu­tion has been shown to improve well­ness while reducing costs and emer­gency room and inpa­tient admissions.

Another speaker, Dr. Jamie Estock, a patient safety research fellow at Pitts­burgh VA Med­ical Center, pre­sented her human fac­tor­ings engi­neering and high fidelity sim­u­la­tion research on oper­ating room med­ica­tion labeling. Pre­lim­i­nary testing shows that labeling oper­ating room med­ica­tions has the poten­tial to reduce life and death near miss errors by as much as 37 percent.

Her work was inspired by a real-​​life close call in which a bag of Lido­caine was acci­den­tally stocked with bags of a med­ica­tion called Hespan. In the case of rapid blood loss during a surgery, the latter is used to keep vital signs stable. “How­ever, if you admin­ister that two gram bag of Lido­caine at the same rate that you would be deliv­ering that Hespan in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion,” said Estock, “it is almost cer­tain death.”

Engi­neering approaches to improve sched­uling methods and opti­mize med­ica­tion labeling can have wide­spread impacts on health out­comes, according to Ben­neyan. In fact, he noted that 70 per­cent of all health­care prob­lems could be solved with rig­orous yet simple methods, if tested sys­tem­at­i­cally and spread effec­tively though net­works of health­care experts.

The second day of the meeting focused on quality engi­neering methods to mea­sure, con­trol, and reduce the impact of vari­a­tion in health­care. “Vari­a­tion exists every­where, in every­thing we do, and can have a major impact on out­comes and costs,” said Benneyan.

The inau­gural Health­care Improve­ment Scholars Meeting, also held at North­eastern, was orga­nized due to the need for the fel­lows in the Vet­erans Affairs Patient Safety Fel­low­ship to present their research.

Ben­neyan and his col­league Dr. Vince Watts, director of the patient safety fel­low­ship and assis­tant pro­fessor of psy­chi­atry at Dart­mouth Med­ical School, ended up gath­ering a much broader com­mu­nity of fel­lows than orig­i­nally planned, resulting in a rich meeting between fel­lows and scholars from many sim­ilar men­toring programs.

There is growing con­sensus that some of the solu­tions will come from blending future leaders with allied yet dif­ferent back­grounds,” said Ben­neyan. “As an aca­d­emic enter­prise immersed across these com­mu­ni­ties, we’re excited to be a cat­a­lyst in this.”

Jim and his group are devel­oping a center of inno­va­tion and it’s great to be a part of that both within indus­trial engi­neering and North­eastern overall,” said Watts, refer­ring to Benneyan’s lead­er­ship in devel­oping a large-​​scale national health­care indus­trial engi­neering research program.