Health care needs systems know-how, report says

NAE's report on “Building a Better Delivery System"

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A new study from the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine calls for the federal government to encourage the U.S. health care industry to incorporate more systems engineering expertise.

The joint study, “Building a Better Delivery System: A New Engineering/Health Care Partnership,” calls for a variety of measures, including the creation of 30 to 50 centers at universities nationwide. The centers would tackle health care systems issues and offer training to professionals so they can apply systems expertise to health care delivery.

Information technology and systems engineering technologies “have the potential of improving radically the quality and productivity of American health care,” the report states. It endorses the Bush administration’s initiative to create electronic health records (EHRs) for all Americans and networks for exchanging health information. But more should be done, the report states.

“Relatively few health care professionals or administrators are equipped to think analytically about health care delivery as a system or to appreciate the relevance of systems-engineering tools,” the report states. “Even fewer are equipped to work with engineers to apply these tools.”

Simulation, game theory, data mining, neural networks and statistical process control could be useful tools for the health care sector, according to the report.

Federal agencies should invest more money in research to advance the use of systems engineering in health care, the report states. Agencies that pay for health care should reward providers who use those techniques to increase quality and efficiency.

One specific area for improvement is the scalability of health information networks. “Special attention should be given to issues related to large-scale integration,” the report states. Another area of emerging importance in health care is wireless communications technology.

The university-based centers are the most important recommendation in the eyes of Proctor Reid, an associate director at the National Academy of Engineering and the report’s principal author. He said the centers could help modernize the health care sector and ease the evolution of health care systems.

Although the 10-year time frame for building a national health information network is a good start, Reid said, officials should look beyond the turn-of-the-century challenges of creating basic EHRs and prepare to deliver more medical services remotely via mobile wireless devices.

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