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Dave Gustafson
October 15, 2020

New endowed ISyE chair honors health systems engineering pioneer

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Dave Gustafson keeps a photo of 9-year-old Theo Burton, the late son of a family friend, on the wall of his office in the Mechanical Engineering Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The boy’s image and obituary from 15 years ago are a reminder to the stalwart health systems engineering researcher that his work affects real people.

“I want to remember who I’m serving,” says Gustafson, who remains an active researcher as a professor emeritus in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). “I think that’s really essential in what we do.”

 Jeffrey Linderoth
Jeffrey Linderoth

Gustafson’s thoughtful, dutiful approach to his research helped him demonstrate the relevancy of industrial engineering solutions to healthcare challenges back in the 1960s—and then play a major role in establishing UW-Madison as an international leader in health systems engineering. So it’s only fitting that the ISyE department chair will now bear his name.

Thanks to several alumni gifts, including a lead contribution from Tom and Suzanne Werner that is the largest gift in department history, ISyE’s department chair has been endowed with a $3 million fund and named in Gustafson’s honor.

“The primary person who put us on the map for health systems research—I don’t think it’s overstating—was Dave Gustafson,” says Harvey D. Spangler Professor Jeffrey Linderoth, who will hold the inaugural David Gustafson Chair.

Linderoth says the financial support will give ISyE the flexibility to sustain its student experience in spite of the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the longer term, he says it will help the department infuse its undergraduate curriculum with courses that allow students to explore their interests within industrial engineering in their first few semesters. And the additional funding will help ISyE continue to hire and support ambitious researchers who follow Gustafson’s example of investigating important, timely healthcare issues that cut across engineering, medical and social science disciplines.

“We’ve hired some young people who I think will lead large-scale efforts involving many different, diverse collaborators,” says Linderoth. “And some of the best health systems research is really where you need to bring people in from many different domains.”

Gustafson is quick to stress that point, readily rattling off the names of collaborators on various projects since his arrival at UW-Madison in 1966. Since then, he’s developed technology to support individuals facing diseases and quality of life challenges, while also applying quality improvement techniques to enhance the efficiency of healthcare and other social service organizations.

Gustafson, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has helped build computer programs and mobile apps to support patients with breast and lung cancer and alcohol addiction, as well as tools to help their families. In recent years, he has shifted his attention to aiding older adults with chronic conditions.

In the 1960s, Gustafson was already working on a computer system to predict the likelihood of suicide attempts among patients reporting suicidal thoughts, using early predictive analytics tools. His team in what’s now called the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at UW-Madison created a computer system to help adolescents navigate questions around health, drug and alcohol use, and more, in the early 1980s. The process improvement system Gustafson and collaborators developed for addiction and behavioral health organizations in the early 2000s remains a considerable part of the CHESS research and service portfolio.

“What he really brought to the field is this systems thinking and the use of models to improve systems,” says fellow Professor Emeritus Patricia Flatley Brennan (PhDIE ’86), Gustafson’s former PhD student and faculty colleague who’s now director of the National Library of Medicine. “He really brought this mechanism of taking industrial engineering methods, of using models to decompose and examine systems, and applied it to a really complex and unstructured system, the healthcare system.”

Gustafson has also brought a personal zeal to his work throughout his career. To better inform his approach to developing technologies used in addiction treatment, he spent nights in alcohol and drug rehab facilities in Madison and New York. He did the same thing at UW Hospital to see firsthand how heart attack patients experience the emergency room.

He says he’s impressed by the work that continues to emerge from his younger ISyE colleagues—research that will now be bolstered by the endowed chair—and offers one broad piece of guidance.

“It’s just so darn important we keep in mind that there are people out there who are suffering, who we need to be helping,” he says. “We just have to remember who we’re trying to help.”