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May 15, 2017

New academic-industry effort at UW-Madison aims to improve healthcare through engineering

Written By: Silke Schmidt

With a company that has grown from three employees in 1979 to 9,700 today—thanks to its information technology, which stores the electronic health records of half the U.S. population—Judy Faulkner knows a thing or two about what it takes to transform healthcare systems. “IT is like the central nervous system of organizations,” says Faulkner, founder and CEO of Epic Systems of Verona, Wisconsin. “It helps define how they work.”

Technology is also at the heart of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthcare Systems Engineering (WIHSE)—a new effort at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that director Pascale Carayon hopes will become Wisconsin’s next key player in transforming the way healthcare is delivered in this country.

The institute capitalizes on a unique partnership among the UW-Madison College of Engineering and its Grainger Institute for Engineering, and the Schools of Medicine and Public Health, Nursing, and Pharmacy. Along with industry partners, researchers in the institute aim to develop healthcare systems that revolutionize the patient experience, improve population health, control healthcare costs, and enhance clinician satisfaction.

“There aren’t many campuses in the country that have strength in engineering, medicine, nursing and pharmacy,” says Carayon, the Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor in Total Quality in industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison. “We have been building transdisciplinary collaborations between these four entities for years. Taking advantage of this unique crossroads, we hope to become a national model for an institute of this kind.”

Attendees discuss healthcare systems issues at the Wisconsin Institute for Healthcare Systems Engineering (WIHSE) inaugural conference, which was held March 16-17, 2017.
Attendees discuss healthcare systems issues at the Wisconsin Institute for Healthcare Systems Engineering (WIHSE) inaugural conference, which was held March 16-17, 2017.

In realizing their vision of transforming healthcare through engineering, institute researchers hope to reduce preventable medical errors, which are the third-leading cause of death after heart attacks and cancer; increase the number of Americans, beyond today’s 55 percent, who receive their recommended care; control the growth of healthcare costs, which account for nearly 18% of the U.S. gross domestic product; and reduce physician burnout, reported by 38 percent of practitioners.

Central to these overarching goals is the idea of modeling what health systems engineers call the “patient journey.” “We don’t just want to understand what happens when patients physically interact with their healthcare providers,” Carayon explains. “We want to build a system that supports ongoing communication between these partners in care, especially when they are distributed over space and time and affiliated with several distinct organizations.”

Carayon, who has been the only engineer on the Becker’s Hospital Review list of 50 experts leading the field of patient safety for three consecutive years, began to lead a working group of UW-Madison professionals charged with developing the institute’s mission in fall 2015. Following two roundtable meetings, WIHSE became official at its March 2017 inaugural conference, held on the UW-Madison campus with speakers—including Epic’s Faulkner—that represented the four academic partners as well as private industry, federal sponsors and healthcare-focused nonprofit organizations.

Keynote conference speakers were Carolyn Clancy, deputy undersecretary for health for organizational excellence at the Veterans Health Administration, and Patricia Flatley Brennan, director of the National Library of Medicine.

Clancy described the critical role engineers have played in the VA’s ongoing healthcare system transformation and challenged them to continue to work with clinicians to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. Brennan called the intersection of data-driven science and healthcare systems engineering a place where WIHSE may play a significant role in the future.

To illustrate—tongue in cheek—the potential of smart and connected healthcare technology to engage patients in self-managing their care, Brennan used a dinner plate that knows what food is on it. It would weigh and chemically analyze that food and then use an embedded chip to obtain nutritional information from the USDA database. Combined with the diner’s electronic health record and recent dietary intake, a green- or red-flashing light on the plate would then indicate whether or not dessert should be skipped.

While a smart dinner plate may not materialize in our immediate future, institute members already have identified their next priority: creating a research consortium of academic and industry partners to fund a pilot project program. To achieve that goal, Carayon will also draw on the support of the UW-Madison Grainger Institute for Engineering, through which she leads the smart and connected healthcare research effort.

“A pilot project program will allow us to initiate specific collaborations of engineers and clinical researchers, particularly junior faculty, on our campus,” Carayon says. “The added value of these collaborations is that they generate preliminary data, which then form the basis of larger external applications for federal support.” Industry partners interested in joining the research consortium, which will provide access to students and a mechanism for contributing to the WIHSE research agenda, can contact Carayon at