Health Care and Environment and Manufacturing & Technology

VIEWPOINT: We have a lot to learn from Henry Ford

June 27, 2005

When Henry Ford installed the world's first moving assembly line in 1913, he changed the auto industry. Little did he know that nearly a century later, the same tools used to create the production line would pave the way for innovations in health care delivery.

First implemented at the Highland Park Ford Plant in Detroit, the assembly line allowed individual workers to remain stationary while performing the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles. The line proved tremendously efficient, helping Ford Motor Co. far surpass production levels of its competitors-all while making vehicles more affordable.

So what did Henry Ford have to offer the health care industry? Probably more than he'll ever know, as we are finding that the same basic operational systems used in vehicle manufacturing can prove quite effective in our business as well.

Health care systems across the country have been examining the usefulness of such tools in an effort to improve the effectiveness of flow and throughput in a clinical setting.

Areas of exploration include:

giving patient care time back to care givers;

supporting patients throughout the continuum of care;

determining optimum facility size, scope of activities, and deployment of services;

implementing appropriate patientcentered care environments;

maximizing efficiencies in the revenue cycle.

This is achieved by using traditional techniques based on industrial-operations research, including control of inventory and supply-chain principles. In addition to examining ways of improving health care systems, it also looks at modifying basic engineering tools to meet the needs of the industry.

This does not mean the objective is to transform clinicians into engineers. Rather, it is to introduce clinicians to these tools so they can ask the right questions that we hope lead to viable solutions.

Through the use of "living laboratories," researchers work together with medical professionals, learning from one another. Locally, researchers at the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering at Purdue University are working in collaboration with the Indiana Health Information Exchange. It is the mission of IHIE to have all health care facilities across the state share timely and appropriate patient information. The project seeks to connect all 167 Indiana hospitals and clinics electronically so they can send and retrieve patient information using the same template. Ultimately, regardless of where patients entered the health care delivery system, doctors would have access to their entire medical history.

Research indicates that larger, more complex systems have the most to gain from this approach. Consequently, when many of us think about a large health care network, we tend to look at ways to optimize each of its parts. But history has shown that in almost no circumstances do industries find that the optimization of the parts leads to the optimization of the total operation. For example, if flow improves at an ambulatory clinic, how does that affect the rest of the delivery system? The answer to that-as well as to similar questions-is among those researchers hope to find.

While much has changed in the manufacturing and health care industries over the last century, one thing remains: the inherent human desire to work together for the greater good. For us, that means safer, more efficient and affordable health care.

In the words of Henry Ford: "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success."



Caponi is CEO of St. Vincent Health.
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