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Improving health care system through engineering

By Eric Nelson

Improving health care system through engineering

Author: Eric Nelson
Magazine Section: Our People, Our Culture
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
Feature Intro: As a mother of four, Benjavan "Den" Upatising knows the frustrations everyone encounters with health care. As a Purdue-trained industrial engineer, she also is uniquely positioned to improve the system.
As a consumer and mother of four, Benjavan “Den” Upatising has experienced many of the same frustrations most everyone encounters with health care providers — from seemingly interminable stays in waiting rooms and other everyday inconveniences to more serious issues regarding quality, safety, cost and effectiveness. As a Purdue-trained industrial engineer, she also is uniquely positioned to bring improvements to the ailing system.

Partners in progress

Den, a native of Thailand who moved to West Lafayette in 1984, completed a four-year Mayo Clinic Healthcare Engineering Fellowship with Purdue’s Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering that was centered on a home-telemonitoring study of elderly patients with multiple chronic conditions.

“Mayo Clinic has always been my source for medical advice, and it was a real honor and privilege to work as Purdue’s first Mayo Clinic Healthcare Engineering fellow,” says Den, who completed her PhD in August 2013 under Purdue industrial engineering professor Yuehwern Yih.

Caring by design

Through the fellowship, Den was part of a team of researchers that analyzed data and developed predictive models from a randomized controlled trial of 205 patients enrolled at four Mayo Clinic Employee Community Health primary care practice locations.

“Are there factors that can be used to predict when home telemonitoring, provided by the primary care practice, can reduce hospitalizations, emergency department visits and total health care cost for older adult patients with multiple chronic illnesses and high risk of worsening functional and medical status?” she asks. “If so, then how can we use the knowledge to develop a decision-support tool that can assist physicians in deciding the appropriate level of care?”

Meaningful expertise

Den earned a BS in industrial engineering from Purdue and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan before working in industry for Whirlpool, Accenture and Toshiba. Her career path eventually took her back to Thailand, where she employed her expertise to address manufacturing and business process issues for appliances, consumer products and service industries.

Den got her first formal taste of the health care profession when she translated a breastfeeding guidebook and hospital documents related to Thailand’s Joint Commission International hospital accreditation and audits. “I became familiar with many hospital internal processes, procedures and services, and I realized it was time for me to move into a career where I can make a difference in people’s lives, like health care,” she says.

Now working as a research scientist at Purdue’s Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, Den continues to enjoy a positive prognosis for her career as well as for the possible applications and extensions of her research.  Her current focus is in developing predictive models to reduce 30-day unplanned hospital readmissions.

“I’m excited about the role that engineering, specifically industrial engineering, can play in improving this nation’s health care system,” she says.