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Taking health care solutions to new heights

Photo by Christopher Huang.

Dr. Vinod Sahney thinks the health care industry can learn a lot from airplane pilots.

“People forget things, but every pilot knows that before you take off, you go through a checklist regardless of how many years you have been flying,” said Sahney, a newly appointed professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in the College of Engineering. “Similar techniques can be applied in hospitals and operating rooms, which can cut down on problems and mistakes.”

Sahney’s scholarship focuses on solving the health-care crisis by using the principles of systems engineering to improve treatment, patient safety and quality of care.

Northeastern’s health-care systems engineering program aims to improve efficiency, safety and access to health care in much the same way airlines, banks and other businesses optimize their operations. As Sahney puts it, “I always say, ‘If you see a good idea, be the first one to take it and apply it.’ ”

Prior to joining the Northeastern faculty, Sahney served as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. He is also an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health and Senior fellow of The Institute for Healthcare Improvement. He has been elected to both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering. Before joining Blue Cross he was Senior Vice President at the Henry Ford Health System for 25 years. He earned his PhD in industrial engineering and operations research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970.

He said the health-care industry, which spends roughly $3 trillion a year, has yet to modernize the way it treats patients, tracks inventory or even schedules appointments. Convincing medical professionals to consider new approaches is a key step toward improving the safety, efficiency and responsiveness of the field, he said.

“A mistake with a person’s health is a lot more serious than a mistake in making some part in a factory,” he said. “Because hospitals and doctors have not standardized operating procedures, you end up with patients getting infections and suffering from complications. We know that we can we apply systems engineering concepts to make sure that those mistakes don’t happen.”

Dr. Sahney will work on solving these problems with industrial engineering and operations research professor James Benneyan, the director of Northeastern’s health-care systems engineering program who leads two federally funded, multi-university research centers at Northeastern: the National Science Foundation’s Center for Health Organization Transformation, which is working develop systems engineering solutions to broad problems throughout health care; and the New England Healthcare Engineering Partnership, a Department of Veterans Affairs Engineering Resource Center which is developing and applying systems and industrial engineering methods similar to those used successfully in automotive and other industries to create efficient, safe, effective, and reliable health care processes.

David Luzzi, dean of the College of Engineering, said, “Dr. Sahney is a pioneer and one of the world’s foremost authorities in health-care systems engineering, and we are extremely pleased and fortunate to have him join our faculty. America clearly needs a far smarter health-care model and Northeastern’s leadership in this realm will be dramatically advanced through the efforts of Dr. Sahney, Dr. Benneyan and their colleagues.”