Structured process improvement is not new to health care; it is a big part of the national conversation on health care reform. Allison Smith, a Kate Gleason College of Engineering undergraduate, is both student and practitioner in an industry under a microscope.
Smith, a fourth-year industrial and systems engineering student from Williamson, N.Y., is part of a Lean Six Sigma Practitioner Program at Rochester General Health System. Lean Six Sigma is a structured system of techniques toward continual improvement, originating in the manufacturing industry and finding a suitable place in health care.
Varied insurance coverage options, individuals using emergency rooms for primary care, overcrowding, high costs of tests and medication—all of these impact how patient care is perceived and practiced. But, with the combination of systems engineering and continual improvement through Lean Six Sigma practices, the process of negotiating the path to health just might be less complicated.
“I learned the basics of Lean Six Sigma in my Introduction to Industrial Engineering class,” says Smith, who is taking the yearlong program as part of an independent study. “I did a co-op in a local manufacturing company and saw it applied there. So seeing how this translates into healthcare and how you have to ‘tweek’ things for the health care perspective is a new process for me.”
Smith takes a full schedule of classes during the quarter. Once every two weeks, she travels to Rochester General Hospital where she is one of 11 people in the program. She and her classmates are expected to deliver capstone projects specific to an area within the hospital by the end of the program in the spring.
“The Lean Sigma group provides training and coaching to the practitioners with the intent to create additional expertise in Lean Sigma leadership throughout the system,” says Sarah Bonzo, Lean Sigma specialist and Smith’s advisor at RGHS. Bonzo is also a 2006 graduate of RIT’s industrial and systems engineering master’s degree program.
Time is an important element in patient satisfaction Smith is learning firsthand, but, “decreasing the time for people—is that always a good thing?” she asked. “From the process standpoint, we want to decrease some process times, but from a patient standpoint, it is about balancing the process time, while not reducing the quality of care. I am learning that the unique approach of Lean Six Sigma allows for process improvements, not by reducing the important time that is spent with a physician,” she added.
Smith will work with the hospital’s Specimen Management department, the group responsible for receiving and logging patient specimens then sending them to the appropriate lab for testing. She is currently learning more about their current intake, analysis and communications processes to determine areas for improvement.
While specific to the Specimen Lab, solutions must integrate well with other departments that also need the information from the lab. Smith is expected to help develop the multi-department work team that will draw up solutions. Improvement in one area should not be a detriment to the next, she explained.
“I’ve been determined to try something that’s not just manufacturing,” says Smith. “It’s been hard because that’s really the majority of the industrial engineering jobs out there. But, it’s been cool to see that the opportunities are out there, especially in health care. You’re not going to know about the opportunities for jobs unless you get in there and find people to talk to about opportunities.”