Engineering health care systems

Photo courtesy of W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center

By Matt Hawkins
June 15, 2015

Trained in a profession most often connected to manufacturing paradigms and factory design, Stephanie Triplett ’07 broke with tradition to make positive changes within health care. Through Bradley’s industrial engineering program, she has improved patient care in the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Triplett began her career as a senior industrial engineer working with dozens of medical centers and outpatient clinics throughout the nation.  Taking a nontraditional route to medicine prepared her to analyze complex problems and offer solutions that would positively affect both patients and employees. 

“In an industry where engineering is not the primary profession, it has opened doors and opportunities for me to stand out and offer a different, but valued perspective,” she said. “With my background, I knew I could have a bigger impact beyond treating a single patient at a time. I had the potential to avoid significant patient harm for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of patients. That potential made it an easy decision for me to become an administrator rather than a clinician.” 

Industry trends proved the decision prescient.

A decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine recommended increased application of systems and industrial engineering approaches to overhaul American health care.  Today, many still believe health care is the industry in need of the most improvement in productivity, efficiency and outcomes per dollar spent. Thomson Reuters estimated that an additional 98,000 patients would survive and 197,000 more would avoid complications if Medicare inpatients received the same level of care as patients in the top 100 hospitals in the U.S. 

“When even those at the top have room to improve, what better way is there to have a direct impact on those in your community or potentially around the world,” Triplett said. “We can raise the standard of care across the board.” 

Triplett now is Vice President of Operations at one of the fastest growing medical centers within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The W.G. (Bill) Hefner Medical Center is responsible for providing care at four campuses. She likened the operation to a small city.

“It takes a lot of planning to decide what services to provide at each location, which becomes even more complex when having to consider support services needed for them to operate,” she said. “For example, should we locate our laundry service in a centralized location or should each campus have their own?  If it’s centralized, what will our transportation costs be?  This is where it becomes valuable that Bradley armed me with an array of problem-solving tools and knowledge.  It’s made me a better health care professional and better manager.”

Applications of engineering methodologies can improve the patient and employee experience, environment and cross-communication between paper processes and electronic systems.  The same methodologies that apply in a manufacturing environment cross over to healthcare, such as human factors, tools for failure analysis, queueing methods, discrete-event simulation, supply chain management, productivity measuring and monitoring, optimization tools for decision making, data mining, predictive modeling and scheduling.

Triplett earned a black belt in Six Sigma quality control training. Bradley students can now earn a green belt through a January interim course offered by the Foster College of Business in collaboration with Caterpillar. 

“Experience in a quality improvement methodology is becoming an expectation rather than an advantage,” she said. “The sooner someone is able to learn an improvement framework like Six Sigma and participate in projects, the more competitive they will be when applying for positions and on a fast track toward being a manager or leader.”  

As a leader, Triplett now has the opportunity to appreciate the true impact an industrial engineer can have. 

“Working in health care has given me the privilege to contribute toward providing the best and safest care to patients and their families,” she said. “Engineers extend ‘first do no harm’ beyond direct treatment.  We can ensure every dollar spent goes as far as possible and that services are timely and customer-centric each and every day. That’s something to be proud of.”