Boston engineers are joining forces with the nation's largest healthcare system to incorporate lessons learned from other industries into daily patient care, including ways to prevent the kind of safety lapses that could expose patients to potential infection.
Northeastern University will lead one of four collaborations with the Veterans Affairs healthcare systems designed to make care more safe, effective, efficient, and reliable. Through the New England Healthcare Engineering Partnership, engineers from Northeastern will work with the eight hospitals and 37 outpatient clinics that make up the New England Veterans Affairs healthcare system. Grants and matching funds of $3.4 million per year from the VA will support the New England effort, which is based in Boston, for an initial three-year period. MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute will also participate.
"Industrial engineers work on improving processes," partnership executive director James Benneyan said. He is a professor of industrial and mechanical engineering at Northeastern and a fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge. "We're the guys doing Six Sigma at GE and the Toyota Production System. The VA already has one of the best healthcare systems and certainly the best information and electronic medical records systems. This is a huge opportunity."
Six Sigma is the name of a famous quality effort to make near-perfect goods by eliminating defects in the production process. Toyota's system eliminates the need for car-parts warehouses by running factories so efficiently that parts are immediately put into cars. Benneyan said in healthcare, waiting rooms could disappear, just like Toyota warehouses, if access and flow were improved so that all patients were seen right away.
Patient safety is a more immediate concern as a team from the new partnership looks into recent problems at three VA hospitals. Colonoscopy equipment was not properly sterilized, putting thousands of veterans in Georgia and Tennessee at risk. Benneyan said the errors -- which may in Tennessee may have stemmed from valves that looked alike but performed differently -- have implications for reusable equipment throughout healthcare. Ideally a solution would make such errors impossible, he said, using as an example fixtures near intensive care unit beds that allow only oxygen and not other gases to be hooked up to the patient because only the oxygen tube will fit.
"We look at potential failures and design processes and systems such that potential failure can never happen," he said. "It's what the airlines and nuclear power do."
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|White Coat Notes covers the latest from the health care industry, hospitals, doctors offices, labs, insurers, and the corridors of government. Chelsea Conaboy previously covered health care for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Write her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cconaboy.|
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