Pro­fessor James Ben­neyan remarked he some­times feels like the Maytag repairman, standing by with tools that can help fix healthcare’s prob­lems. The dif­fer­ences between Ben­neyan and “Ol’ Lonely” are that the machine he’s working on is actu­ally broken and while he’s actively helping numerous orga­ni­za­tions, he wishes the phone would ring more.

As founding director of Northeastern’s Health­care Sys­tems Engi­neering Insti­tute, Ben­neyan is a nation­ally rec­og­nized expert in solving com­plex health­care chal­lenges using sys­tems engi­neering methods.

Ben­neyan addressed a room full of senior health­care improve­ment leaders at a recent North­eastern work­shop, illus­trating how his three cen­ters have used these tools and approaches to address high-​​leverage prob­lems also facing Boston health­care orga­ni­za­tions. This approach scaled nation­ally, he esti­mated, might cut the annual nearly $3 tril­lion health­care budget by one-​​third.

While roughly 70 per­cent of health­care prob­lems can be fixed with simple front-​​line improve­ment approaches,” said Ben­neyan, “maybe another 20 per­cent need some­thing a bit more. But the upper tail prob­lems are fun­da­men­tally com­plex and in other indus­tries would be solved with more advanced sys­tems engi­neering methods.”

Ben­neyan has shown this same poten­tial in indi­vidual health sys­tems and now has funding from the Cen­ters for Medicare and Med­icaid to scale it across an entire health­care com­mu­nity, here in Boston.

Simple improve­ment methods include things like reor­ga­nizing storage clin­ical closets so the most oft-​​used items are readily avail­able. How­ever, more advanced tech­niques usu­ally are required to solve macro-​​level prob­lems, such as iden­ti­fying the best loca­tions for new clinics, more effi­cient ambu­lance routing pat­terns, or opti­mized treat­ment sched­ules. For these sorts of chal­lenges, Ben­neyan said, engi­neers turn to math­e­mat­ical and com­pu­ta­tional modeling.

Ben­neyan gave an overview of the most common sys­tems engi­neering models and sev­eral health­care exam­ples of each in order to stim­u­late group brain­storming of poten­tial appli­ca­tions across Boston.

Models are arti­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the real world, but useful for rapidly helping design better processes and sys­tems,” he explained. For example, his team can create sim­u­la­tion models that mimic such things as patient flow throughout a hos­pital, and then test hun­dreds of poten­tial improve­ment ideas in order to iden­tify the best changes to put into actual practice.

The work­shop was the second in an ongoing series to intro­duce Boston health­care pro­fes­sionals to the types of prob­lems sys­tems engi­neering can solve and the methods for doing so. After Benneyan’s lec­ture, he led a group brain­storming dis­cus­sion ses­sion to iden­tify sim­ilar prob­lems they could work on locally.