Q&A with Richard Biehl; The challenges facing health care systems engineers

June 23, 2017
Richard Biehl
From the June 2017 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine
HealthCare Business News caught up with Richard Biehl, instructor and program director of Healthcare Systems Engineering at the University of Central Florida, who discussed the role of health care systems engineers and the challenges they face.

HCB News: What is a health care systems engineer?
Richard Biehl: Systems, in the sense we’re discussing, are fairly large-scale collections of interacting parts, the combination of which produces outcomes or results that would be beyond the capabilities of individual component parts. Systems engineers work to design and optimize those systems with an emphasis on the interactions as well as the components. A health care systems engineer does that work across the societal-scaled system that is our health care system. Unlike a mechanical systems engineer who works with system components of mechanical systems, the health care systems perspective encompasses large-scale institutions, facilities, knowledge, professions, regulatory models, supply chains, social services, biomedical research and education, and the general public. Whatever might affect the delivery of health care to patients could be within the focus of a health care systems engineer.

HCB News: What are some of the most pressing issues that systems engineers are helping to address?
RB: There are so many, with the highest number involving economics and the most important dealing with safety. Everyone talks about reducing health care costs, and costs are often the business justification for a systems engineering project, but cost is rarely the focus of our engineering efforts. We know that an efficient optimized system will operate at its lowest cost. Our focus is on that efficiency and optimization, even if our management teams only want to talk about cost.

To improve systems, we usually look for disruptions at the system level. As we find ways to provide health care access to more people, we have to address disruptions in supply. We know that there won’t be enough doctors in the future to meet the demand, particularly in some geographic locations and some clinical specialties. Making sure there’s an adequate supply of health care in the right places, in the right specialties, and at the right times, is a health care systems engineering challenge.

Among the safety concerns that systems engineers focus on are medication errors and continuity of care, as well as the general overuse, underuse or misuse of key health care procedures. We address these by improving specific aspects of the practice of health care in organizations, including increasing the use of evidence-based practices, improvements in the capture and flow of patient information and an increased focus on population-level trends and patterns. Improving health care requires even rethinking what we mean by a health care organization as we include more and broader stakeholders in our initiatives.

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