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Better wait times, through engineering

The skills of engineers could make clinical care flow better and reduce patient waiting times, an Australian university vice-chancellor has said.

Although he said a major change in culture would be needed, Flinders University vice-chancellor professor Michael Barber said there was much to be gained from opening communication between health clinicians and engineers or operations research professionals.

Barber, who has a background in applied mathematics, said in some fundamental respects hospitals are productions lines. “If they were designed, perhaps, to minimise patient waiting time while increasing safety and decreasing adverse events, everybody, but particularly patients, would benefit,” he said.

Speaking at the opening of a joint conference with Nankai University in Shanghai, China, Barber said approaching healthcare as a complex system can bring remarkable improvements in efficiency and improve the quality of treatment and outcomes for patients.

He added there are inherent dangers in taking a piecemeal approach that focuses only on subsystems or individual processes. “It is equally important to see how these subsystems and processes interact and connect to the wider system as a whole, and [operations research] and systems engineering can help in this regard,” he said.

He cited studies in the US that found up to 30 to 40 cents in the healthcare dollar went to costs associated with “overuse, underuse, misuse, duplication, systems failures, unnecessary repetition, poor communication and inefficiency”.

“I suspect that the same can be said of the Australian and Chinese health systems, although hopefully not to the same extent,” Barber said.

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