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USC Students Team Up With Eisenhower Hospital to Tackle Inefficiency

Students studying healthcare operations spent their spring break improving efficiency at Palm Springs hospital
April 08, 2014 —

David Belson hates inefficiency. In fact, if he were a superhero, he would be the "Waste Eliminator"—making the world better one adjustment at a time.

Jennifer Wortham, vice president of organizational transformation at Eisenhower Medical Center, is also not a fan of inefficiency. When she started at the Rancho Mirage-based hospital, she wanted to conduct deep data analysis. Although she was operating on a tight budget, she still wanted quality work.

Her solution was the “Spring Break Practicum” program, an intense week of student-led projects aimed at improving efficiency in hospital operations.

Snow Xue Sun (right) worked to make Eisenhower's patient onboarding process more efficient.

She turned to friend and colleague Belson, an adjunct professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, for help recruiting students. “I thought I would be lucky to have three to four students who would be willing to give up their spring break for work,” said Wortham. “Much to my surprise, I had 13 students register for the program.”

The team of 13 students was either previously or currently enrolled in Belson’s ISE 508 "Improving Healthcare Operations" or ISE 599 "Practicum in Healthcare Operations”.

While other students were partying during spring break, Belson’s students were hard at work brainstorming ways the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage could operate more efficiently.

One of the most interesting projects during the trip was one that sought to cut down on the cost of removing hazardous waste. The student that tackled the problem, Xiao Zang, a USC Viterbi master’s student in industrial and systems engineering, observed that large amounts of non-hazardous waste such as coffee cups and towels were ending up in the hazardous bins.

Biohazard waste must be disposed of in special ways once it leaves the hospital, resulting in a higher cost to dispose of the trash under the “biohazard” designation. After careful study of the trash in the hazardous bins, Zang found that most of the items did not belong there.

Out of five bags that were resorted, only half of a bag was actual hazardous waste—the rest was just ordinary trash. Zang recommended that the hospital consult landfills to better define biohazard and regular trash and to educate nurses and doctors on the importance of throwing out trash in the proper bins. He also recommends the hospital reduce the size of the containers to discourage overuse of the bins.

The changes, with proper implementation, could result in a whopping $205,019 annually savings.

“I really enjoyed working at Eisenhower and using my knowledge to help make real contributions to the hospital,” Zang said.

Another project, led by students Katherine Verrochi and Snow Xue Sun, looked at ways to make better use of nursing and M.D. staff to shorten wait-times for patients. To understand the scope of the problem, the two looked at the computer system, scheduling of staff and the physical layout of the hospital’s three urgent care clinics.

They drew a process map to identify weak points in performance and made recommendations to the hospital based on their findings.

"If solutions were implemented, it would not only improve hospital efficiency, but also employee morale," Sun said.

According to Wortham, all of the students’ projects yielded really interesting and important findings for the hospital. The hospital’s leadership team was very impressed by the quality and quantity of work completed by the students in such a short time.

“I'm hoping we can bring a few students back for summer projects. I would like to make this an annual event," she said. Martin Massiello, chief operating officer for Eisenhower, had high praise for the student’s efforts, saying that the program was “enriching for the institution.”

The interest in healthcare efficiency will likely continue to rise as institutions attempt to curb rising costs.

“At first, hospitals and clinics placed less emphasis on productivity and efficiency,” said Belson. “Now, partly as the result of healthcare reform, they are much more interested.”