Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

November 2013    |    Volume: 45    |    Number: 11

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial Engineers

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Health Systems by Amanda Mewborn

Industrial Engineer’s monthly column about health systems (November 2013) 

Improving public health

On July 31, I had the pleasure of attending the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Symposium on Engineering and Operations Research in Public Health. Part of the symposium’s purpose was "to highlight how engineering and operations research impacts and informs population health."

Before this event, I hadn’t given much thought to the role of an IE in public health, incorrectly assuming that such problems should be tackled by people with degrees in public health. Not only did I learn the real application of engineering to public health problems, I was inspired to try to grow the role of engineers in this field. Let me share three examples from the day’s presentations.

Rick Gelting talked about the relationship between environmental engineering and public health. It was intriguing to hear how he used a systems perspective to analyze the root cause of a contaminated spinach outbreak in California. The organism that caused the outbreak was Escherichia coli, or E. coli as most of us know it. Gelting visited the farm that was the source of the contaminated spinach.

Through a systems view or approach, the source was found to be the cattle on a field across a stream from the spinach farm. The cattle defecated in the stream, and the feces containing E. coli entered the water. The water table was higher than the stream, meaning that the source of water for the spinach farm became contaminated.

While I’m certainly simplifying the analysis, the approach was nothing less than one that required thinking about the system as a whole.

Erica Tyburski detailed AnemoCheck, an inexpensive diagnostic test for anemia. A biomedical engineer, Tyburski co-invented the diagnostic test as an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech. AnemoCheck provides "a simple, hand-held, inexpensive, reproducibly accurate, quick and disposable point-of-care colorimetric assay to diagnose anemia in the most basic settings."

This device was quite impressive, as it produces results in less than one minute from a single drop of blood, and it is expected to cost pennies on the dollar compared to similar tests. This test is a great example of how engineering can boost public health by helping to identify and diagnose a condition afflicting billions of people worldwide.

Michael Washington, a Society for Health Systems member, talked about his experiences as an industrial engineer at the CDC. Take the allocation of vaccines: A typical IE probably would distribute them to where they would provide the most benefit, usually to areas where people have a greater risk of contracting the disease.

However, because each state is entitled to federal resources, that is not always the case. State A’s population may have a low risk of contracting a disease, while state B’s residents have a high risk. However, if state A wants the vaccines, state A has as much right to the vaccines as state B. The amount of the vaccine still could vary because of epidemiological factors, including population.

The allocation of resources is something an IE certainly can solve. The final part of Washington's talk featured a few photographs of the people from around the world who benefit from the work he does as an IE at the CDC. I can’t think of anything more motivating than to know that your work is impacting, and potentially saving, the lives of countless people.

The event was inspiring, fun and provided a new lens for me to view the role of an engineer in healthcare. Public health is certainly a field where engineering can help save millions of people’s lives worldwide.

Amanda Mewborn is an industrial engineer, registered nurse, and lean black belt who works as a senior healthcare operational planner at Perkins+Will. She focuses on improving healthcare efficiency, quality and experience. She can be reached at amanda.mewborn@perkinswill.com.