Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Healthcare and System-Optimization Flow Management

Students in my Transportation & Logistics class at UMass Amherst do an end of the semester project and the projects have been as varied as studying pedestrian crosswalks and safety, bicycle transportation, PVTA bus scheduling and routing, pizza delivery routes, congestion management at large entertainment venues, and even paper flow management in university administration, traffic management in New Delhi, and flow management in a local hospital. The students are asked to apply concepts learned in the course to topics of interest to them.

The hospital flow management model project was done by a student who is also a nurse and involved data collection at the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. She constructed a system-optimization model, which we had learned about in the class, and which had been used for years in transportation planning. Consider a transportation problem, for example, in which there is a central controller (think freight routing) of the network as opposed to user-optimization (in which individual agents act selfishly to determine their own best choices). She included the various links in the network and the corresponding activities associated with patient preparation, surgeries, etc.

Interestingly, I was reading recently in the Boston Globe about the work of Professor Eugene Litvak, who works in healthcare operations management at Boston University and who has been applying flow management successfully to optimizing hospital operations. His greatest success, to-date, is the savings incurred at Childrens Hospital, which has been estimated at $100 million (since 100 hospital beds did not need to be built due to more efficient allocation of flows given the capacities). You can read the full article:

The article also notes that Professor Litvak is from the former Soviet Union. He worked in Kiev, Ukraine before coming to the US in 1988. Hence, his emphasis and appreciation of central control and efficiency may be more natural to him. I recall that while I was at the World Science Festival on the Traffic panel, our moderator, Robert Krulwich of ABC and NPR, teased us and said whether we were Communist in promoting system-optimization.

Clearly, as in the case of hospital operations, when the system is at stake (and peoples' well-being) if one can optimize flows, lives can be saved.

What could be more rewarding in education than seeing that research and education can be put into outstanding practice!