Northeastern students tackle healthcare

Improving the nation’s healthcare system requires significant collaboration across disciplines, institutions, and sectors, according to James Benneyan, a mechanical and industrial engineering professor at Northeastern University. One of the few groups that do this kind of groundbreaking—and significantly challenging—work is the Center for Health Organization Transformation, an industry-university cooperative research center funded by the National Science Foundation.

Benneyan, the center’s co-director and co-principal investigator, applies industrial engineering approaches to the real-time needs of industry partners, which include the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Massachusetts General Hospital. Last month, graduate students from Benneyan’s Healthcare Systems Engineering Institute presented the results of a score of interdisciplinary projects at a meeting for members of the center, which comprises Northeastern as well as Texas A&M University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Penn State University.

At the meeting, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said this type of interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to addressing global challenges. “Every project should do what you are doing: namely, partner with others to change the world.”

In one project, Benneyan’s team collaborated with Texas A&M researchers to understand and accelerate how new innovations and best practices spread across the U.S. healthcare system.

As part of that project, a team led by Northeastern graduate students Corey Balint and Nicholas Andrianas used new social network algorithms developed by the HSyE to map the interconnectedness and topology of healthcare improvement communities in order to understand and visualize their structure. In parallel, post-doctoral researcher Dayna Martinez and HSyE fellow Cory Stasko, a health policy graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used that information to build computational models that simulate and optimize the speed of the spread of improvements and scientific discoveries across the U.S. healthcare system.

Researchers at the Center for Health Organization Transformation are currently conducting more than 40 projects, all of which are designed to address what members of the center’s advisory board describe as the “wicked problems facing healthcare today.” The two-day meeting allowed research teams to present interim results to all members, receive feedback, and brainstorm new ideas.

The meeting also included a plenary lecture by Tejal Gandhi, president of the National Patient Safety Foundation. She noted that the field of patient safety has come a long way since the 1990s, when medical error was the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, but cautioned against complacency. “Patient safety is more important than ever,” Gandhi explained. “It is fundamental to all other improvements.”

Later in her talk, she outlined five approaches for further improving patient safety over the next decade. Some of those areas, such as optimizing the use information technologies and understanding the impact of care across the continuum of health facilities, the HSyE Institute and NPSF Foundation hope to tackle together.