About this Article
Written by: Shayna Pepin
Written on: December 7th, 2012
Tags: industrial engineering, health & medicine
Thumbnail by: Produlog/Produlog
About the Author
Shayna is a Junior in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering set to graduate with a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering in May of 2014. She is interested in management, lean processes, and aspires to combine aspects of psychology and engineering in her career.
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Volume XV Issue III > How Industrial Engineers Will Save Health Care
Industrial engineers possess the knowledge, training, and experience needed to distribute solutions to improve inefficient systems, like American healthcare. Breakdown in efficiency, caused by factors such as ambiguous communication and ineffective timelines, contributes to patient frustration and dissatisfaction. Industrial engineers are rightly sought out to identify flaws in the healthcare system and to develop effective solutions to these failings, ultimately enhancing patient satisfaction and the standard of care for all American citizens.


Healthcare is the largest and among the most important systems in the United States of America. It seems counter intuitive, then, that so many flaws exist in the current system. When comparing the healthcare system in the United States to those of other countries in terms of safety, efficiency, and patient centeredness as well as other factors, the United States ranks among the worst according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) as seen in Fig. 1[1].
Institute of Medicine/Institute of Medicine
Figure 1: Comparison of healthcare in multiple countries (Institute Of Medicine)
This data illustrates that the current system is flawed, evidenced by the level of patient frustration and dissatisfaction. Several factors contribute to this patient dissatisfaction, including the absence of effective communication, lack of trust in the provider, ambiguity concerning timelines and continuity of care, and the elongated time between the steps in the process.
These alarming figures and ultimate patient dissatisfaction undoubtedly illustrate that reform is imperative. The initial step in this reformation process is to identify the factors that contribute to these disturbing trends, and the challenge lies in the identification and appointment of individuals best suited for this task. Industrial and Systems Engineering, a relatively new field of study, provides professionals with the theoretical knowledge, training, and experience necessary for successfully identifying systemic weaknesses and articulating subsequent solutions that would ultimately improve the standard of care for all American citizens.

Industrial Engineers - Their fit into Healthcare

Industrial engineers apply not only the doctrines of engineering but also the principles of various fields of study such as statistics, economics, and management to improve efficiency and optimize systems. With their training and experience in improving factors such as productivity, safety, and effectiveness, industrial engineers are in a position to play an essential role in improving the efficiency of the healthcare system in the United States. Reflection upon the history of industrial engineering and analysis of how its contributions affected another important American industry – the hospital system – help illustrate how this skill set has previously benefited system efficiency in a number of ways: improving communication between patients, nurses, and doctors; providing patients with more information; and a shortening the transfer time between appointments.
Industrial engineering was developed and defined in the automobile industry with the Ford Motor Company leading the way. This engineering specialty subsequently spread to other car companies and eventually to a variety of industries. In each of these industries, specific methodologies were applied with the goal of increasing efficacy and productivity for each specific company or industry sector.
One of those approaches, the Six Sigma methodology, involves improving the quality of production by identifying defects in the manufacturing process and removing them. This, in turn, minimizes variability in both the business and the manufacturing processes, thereby minimizing costs and maximizing profit. “Six Sigma” is a statistical term and results in a rating that reflects the percentage of products created without defects. In this process, 99.99966% of the products manufactured are expected to be free of defects, meaning that given one million opportunities for something to meet required specifications in a process, 3.4 or fewer of them will be flawed [2]. The Six Sigma method is an example of a tool that industrial engineers can use to analyze a dysfunctional system such as health care. Their specialization in optimization makes them prime candidates for fixing a system whose problems can be broken into a few major factors.
Fig​ure 2: A simplified and general view of the Six Sigma method