Of the many things that COVID-19 has made abundantly clear to us, surely one of them is a newfound realization that public health has become increasingly complex. Understanding the challenges to public health – that is, the task of guarding the well-being of the U.S. population – is essential now more than ever.
A way to accomplish this: using health care engineering, or more specifically, the application of systems engineering in health care. Systems engineering is defined as an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. These could include such complex systems as aircraft and spacecraft systems. Already, this concept is flourishing. Research centers throughout the U.S., including those at the Mayo Clinic and Northeastern University’s Healthcare Systems Engineering, suggest challenges such as patient safety could be made better by applying systems engineering principles and techniques through more holistic and human-centered approaches to systems design.
These efforts have proven helpful to health care delivery in response to COVID-19. But more is required, particularly in the use of systems engineering in informing public health responses and interventions. A field of public health systems engineering is needed.
Its intent: to develop and apply systemic and integrated approaches to understanding and solving public health problems. Formalizing a field of public health systems engineering – focused on health care at the population level – offers the needed research and educational pathways to advance this work.
The Systems Engineering Imperative
Examples of this include designing and developing personal protective equipment, repairing the vulnerabilities in the food supply chain, and grappling with vaccine logistics. COVID-19 has made clear the growing interconnected, interdisciplinary and multifaceted nature of public health’s future. In partnering with public health, systems engineering can mature mindsets (systems thinking) and practices that can aid in meeting this future.
Illustrating this notion are efforts by Pinar Keskinocak, the co-founder and director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems at Georgia Institute of Technology, and her colleagues. In a recent interview, Keskinocak said: “Whenever there is a complex problem, it needs serious analysis or technology and that’s where an engineer comes in. This is exactly the situation now, very complex, dynamic and uncertain. It’s difficult to understand what’s going on or make decisions just by sitting around a table and discussing. We need expertise in engineering.”
COVID-19 has often been called a stress test for public health. COVID-19 will not be our last or worst pandemic; our emerging understanding of the public health implications of climate change further spotlights this growing need. “What is true for COVID is true for climate change,” says a recent Scientific American opinion piece. “We’re not prepared. Part of the gap is a knowledge gap: We haven’t done the needed research, and we lack critical information.”
Woodrow W. Winchester III, is the Graduate Program Director, Professional Engineering Programs, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A seasoned academic program director, Woodrow is the Graduate Program Director, Professional Engineering Programs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Woodrow is a Certified Professional Engineering Management Professional (CPEM) with over ten (10) years of project engineering and management experiences. Woodrow is also currently the Director, Professional Development & Continuing Education for the American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM) and is a regular contributor to the ASEM Blog. Selected as a member of the second cohort of the IAspire Leadership Academy, Woodrow is an advocate for more equitable, inclusive, and consequential approaches to technology design and deployment. As a thought leader, Woodrow has published works in influential practitioner-oriented publications such as INCOSE Insight Magazine, ACM Interactions, and Fast Company Magazine. Woodrow received his BS, MS, and PhD in Industrial and Systems Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, NC.