Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

May 5, 2015

What Could Engineering Possibly Have To Offer Health Care?

By Elizabeth Zimmermann


Jeanne Huddleston, M.D., is the medical director of the Health Care Systems Engineering Program in the Mayo Clinic Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery.

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When you think of an engineer, what do you think of?  OK, beyond pocket protectors…what comes to mind?  Engineers solve problems right?  Engineers fix things.

Our system of delivering health care in North America is broken. According to the Common Wealth Fund’s annual international review, the United States received the lowest ranking among the top eleven wealthiest nations for value delivered over dollars spent in 2014. How could this be?

Have you ever had to wait a long time to see a doctor in an emergency room?  Have you ever sensed that the care team involved did not communicate well with each other or that their work was not coordinated?  How about calling for an outpatient appointment only to find there was nothing available for weeks or months?  Have you ever corrected your medication list because the hospital had the wrong medications listed (AGAIN!)?  Do you know anyone who’s had a postoperative infection?  How about someone who was given a wrong diagnosis?  Have you ever waited in the hospital for pain medication and it seemed to take hours to get relief?

Chances are you have. These things happen every day and they are just a few examples of where improvements are needed in health care delivery. Mayo Clinic recognized the value of bringing engineers into the health care team when it launched the Health Care Systems Engineering Program in the Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery. Engineers in the program are specialists in human factors, teamwork, scheduling, optimization, reliability and simulation. Their work results in improved safety, efficiency, quality and overall patient satisfaction.

Look back at that list of questions. With so many problems to be fixed, how do the engineers decide what to work on? The answer is surprisingly simple. They listen. They listen to patients, nurses, doctors and Mayo Clinic leadership.  Not only that but the engineers have established a Patient and Family Advisory Council  to help identify problems and possible solutions to ensure that the “fixes” will actually meet patients’ needs.  In other words, the patients’ voice is heard throughout the process. Likewise, the engineers work closely with patient safety and mortality review committees to identify the system problems that may harm patients.

Some of our successes include developing a new surgical scheduling process to decrease the amount of time patients have to wait for surgery. (This project won an international award ).  We have also developed stretches  (as in hands, arms and legs) for surgical teams to use in the operating room to decrease fatigue, muscle tension and improve safety of the procedures. The Health Care Systems Engineering  team also developed surgical team briefing strategies to improve teamwork. And we developed  the Mayo Clinic early warning score (MC-EWS) that could providers to a patient’s risk of sudden and unexpected deterioration.

These are just a few of the ideas we’ve explored in our efforts to ensure the best experience possible for our patients, and patients everywhere. We hope to continue to identify new, and better, ways to deliver health care, and maybe, just maybe, help move our nation up on that value scale.


Tags: About, Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery, health care systems engineering

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