Report highlights high costs of ignoring health tech

Engineering/Health Care Partnership Report

The U.S. health care industry has neglected widely used systems engineering tools and technologies, and that neglect has contributed to the nearly 100,000 preventable deaths a year, according to a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

The health care industry’s collective inattention to systems engineering has a mind-boggling cost of a half-trillion dollars a year due to inefficiency, the report states.

"While medicine has advanced rapidly in recent decades thanks to new diagnostic and therapeutic technologies developed by engineers, the health care industry has virtually ignored a broad spectrum of other technologies that could radically improve the safety and efficiency of health care," said W. Dale Compton, a professor at Purdue University and co-chairman of the two organizations’ Committee on Engineering and the Delivery of Health Care.

Jerome Grossman, the committee’s other co-chairman and senior fellow and director of the Health Care Delivery Policy Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said engineering tools and clinical information technologies could transform the health care system from an “underperforming conglomerate of independent entities” into a high-performance system.

Many industries have used systems engineering tools, which help design, analyze and control complex systems, to improve the safety and quality of products and services and to lower production costs.

“These same tools, in certain circumstances, have been shown to improve the quality and efficiency of health care," the report states. "If adapted and widely adopted, they could help deliver care that is safe, effective, timely, efficient, equitable and patient-centered."

Researchers also found that the health care industry is “woefully underinvested” in information and communications technologies. They urged the government and the private sector to accelerate development of the National Health Information Infrastructure (NHII).

The report says tools used for supply chain management, financial engineering and risk analysis could be harnessed to measure, characterize and optimize performance at higher levels of the health care system, such as health care organizations, regional care systems and the public health system.

Private insurers, large employers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should all provide incentives for health care providers to use systems engineering tools to improve the quality of care and efficiency of health care delivery, the report states.

The report recommends that the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine develop a Web site to provide clinicians with information about and access to systems engineering tools. Federal agencies and private funders should support development of new curricula, textbooks and instructional software to train clinicians in the use of systems engineering tools, the report added.

Federal research and federal health care agencies should significantly increase their support to advance the application of systems engineering to health care delivery, the report states. Promising areas of research include human factors engineering, modeling and simulation, enterprise management, financial engineering and risk analysis.

NHII needs to focus on emerging technologies that are based on wireless communications and microelectronic systems that have the potential to radically change the structure of the health care delivery system, the report states. Wearable or implanted wireless devices connected to clinical information systems could provide diagnostic data and deliver therapeutic agents for a variety of chronic conditions, the report states.

The National Academies Press will release copies of the report, “Building a Better Delivery System: A New Engineering/Health Care Partnership,” this fall.

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