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Gary Chen
Gary Chen

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News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

May 5, 2008

NIU engineering students work
with hospital to improve efficiency

DeKalb, Ill. — While some people complain that modern medicine is too much like an assembly line, Gary Chen believes quality of care at hospitals could be improved if they were managed more like a factory.

Chen, a professor who teaches in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in Northern Illinois University’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, believes that even the best hospitals could benefit from applying some of the principles of systems engineering.

He will get the chance to test his theory thanks to a $15,000 grant from Kishwaukee Community Hospital, which moved into a state-of-the art, 100-bed facility last fall.

“In systems engineering, the focus is on trying to make the process better, not the product,” Chen explains, hastening to dispel any notion that he wants to tell doctors how to treat patients. Instead, Chen and a team of graduate students will examine current processes and see if they can be improved by using techniques typically applied to problems in industrial settings.

Applying industrial quality techniques to healthcare settings is a growing trend across America and one that NIU’s engineering school is excited about.

“The project at Kishwaukee Community Hospital puts our students at the forefront of a trend that fits well with our Industrial and Systems Engineering program,” said Dean Promod Vohra. “This is a first step in developing a health-care related curriculum that will become an important part of NIU’s new Healthcare Leadership Initiative, which will allow the college to be an important contributor to healthcare providers across the region.”

Chen and his students have already begun working at the hospital, observing operations in the emergency room, the hospital pharmacy and the call center, which is the planning nexus of the hospital. The students will painstakingly map out processes related to medication delivery and personnel scheduling at the hospital. They will break each into a series of actions, interactions and decisions and plot them on a map. Using that map to identify opportunities and inefficiencies, Chen and his team will investigate whether they can apply systems engineering tools (simulation, supply chain management, scheduling, etc.) to improve operations. Finally they will create a map showing how they believe the system can incorporate those tools to optimize the processes.

Chen calls the approach “Map-to-Improve” or M2I. He developed it while working at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., where he and a student worked with a local hospital, mapping out the medication delivery system and 11 others. After mapping the systems and studying problem areas they offered up a variety of solutions ranging from redesigning forms used to track patient care, to relocating medication dispensers to areas where nurses were less likely to be disturbed or distracted. Most of the solutions cost little or nothing to implement. While the results are still being analyzed, anecdotal evidence from hospital staff indicates that substantial improvements have been realized.

“We will be studying similar issues at Kishwaukee Community Hospital, but because the technology at Kishwaukee is so much further advanced, we will likely identify very different issues and make very different recommendations. Instead of recommending that they change a piece of paper we may be recommending they change a piece of software,” says Chen.

A system approach fits nicely with the philosophy at the hospital, which has a robust performance improvement program and is always striving to improve the quality of care that patients receive, said, Vice president for Patient Care Services and Medical Staff Pam Duffy.

"We are excited to see how we can use techniques from the realm of industrial engineering as an adjunct to our ongoing quality improvement programs,” says Duffy. “We are very excited to have Dr. Chen and his students here and we are eager to work with them to enhance their education while working on projects of benefit to patient care quality and the hospital.”

Ultimately, Chen hopes that the project will lead not only to a long-term collaboration with Kishwaukee Community Hospital, but also help him develop a system that can be applied at any interested hospital.

The need for systems improvement varies from hospital to hospital; however, one area that can benefit in most hospitals is the seemingly simple tasks of getting medication from the hospital pharmacy to the patient’s bedside. In reality, that process is a complex string of communications, handoffs and opportunities for errors. In fact, a 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found that 1.5 million Americans a year are victims of medication errors – 400,000 of those while they are patients in hospitals, resulting in extra medical costs of $3.5 billion.

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