So You Want to be an Industrial Engineer in Healthcare? 

By: Ali Hobbs

Healthcare: it’s a “buzzword” for industrial engineering (IE) programs, students, and professionals right now, but is this buzzword worth changing your career trajectory? When I first heard of applying IE techniques in healthcare, I was surprised having never thought healthcare was an option. I eventually realized that although it’s an option, it’s going to take additional skills, time --and potentially degrees -- to make it a reality. More importantly, breaking into healthcare requires a real passion for process improvement in clinical settings, dedication to learning a wealth of clinical knowledge, and being able to provide the quick and concise benefits of having an IE perspective in an industry that might not be used to the IE way of thinking.

From the day I first heard of IEs in healthcare, I knew it was for me and my sole focus became breaking into the healthcare arena. Anything that had healthcare associated with it, I did. This included getting involved in the local chapter of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI), volunteering to join research teams that were based in hospitals, attending the Health Systems Process Improvement Conference, and taking classes in the public health department in addition to the IE curriculum. Even with this “healthcare experience,” it was nearly impossible for me to land an internship as an IE in healthcare. In my mind, I was taking all the necessary steps, but I quickly grasped that breaking into the healthcare industry isn’t a straight and traditional path.

Passion for Industrial Engineering in Healthcare

I had assumed my passion for healthcare and the experience I gained while in college were setting me up for a successful career in healthcare. What I failed to realize was that virtually everyone within the healthcare industry shares that same passion and drive. The joy of seeing healthy patients leaving the hospital with their loved ones is immeasurable. Nurses, doctors, management, and most everyone in healthcare is working for the joy of helping patients. Working as an IE within the field, I don’t get to see that daily, but when I do, it makes all the work I’ve put into my projects worth it. What was unique to me was the value I could see IEs having on patients, even though we are not delivering direct patient care.

In 2015 I wrote an essay expressing the need for IEs in healthcare to assist in breaking down silos in the healthcare system. I believed it then, and even more so now. At the time of the essay, I only had the experience of a few small-scale hospital research projects. After working on larger, system-wide projects over the past few years, I believe that health systems need IEs now more than ever. What set my passion apart, was the true benefit process improvement, lean techniques, data analytics, and all the other tools IE have in their toolbelt are for patient care and hospital operations.

An example of the importance of having this infatuation with the value that IEs bring to healthcare is the variety of ways an IE can be involved in healthcare. The roles I originally anticipated IEs playing within the healthcare field have changed drastically, and the flexibility required in this industry demands adapting to a clinical mindset while staying true to IE techniques. Without a strong tie to IE, the significance of bringing an IE mindset to a traditionally non-IE world is lost. That’s why this type of passion is vital for the success of an IE in healthcare.

Dedication to Gaining Clinical Knowledge

Not being clinical or delivering direct patient care (like a nurse), is most likely the toughest hurdle to overcome. Although it’s not expected of you to have enough clinical knowledge to provide patient care, you must still possess some basic clinical understanding to provide the most efficient solution. IEs have the challenge of needing basic clinical understanding for almost every department in the hospital. Eliminating a bottleneck in one area could lead to another bottleneck in a different area. In a hospital setting, the residual bottleneck could be in another department that operates differently and requires knowledge of additional clinical nuances. Without understanding the operational and clinical implications of the impacted process, you may be unintentionally creating an endless loop of bottlenecks.

The clinical knowledge expected of an IE is difficult to achieve while pursuing an IE degree. There are an immeasurable number of acronyms, definitions, terms, and general understanding of hospital operations. Not to mention, these acronyms will most likely change depending on the hospital. Even with my experience in healthcare research and a Master’s in industrial engineering with a strong emphasis on healthcare, the learning curve when entering the working world was intimidating. IEs need to prove they have enough clinical knowledge to suggest the right improvements and understand the tradeoffs those improvements will bring about for the rest of the hospital. Without the clinical knowledge, the challenge of gaining implementation buy-in becomes immensely more difficult. IEs hoping to use their training in healthcare should be prepared for this learning curve and dedicated to gleaning clinical knowledge any way they can. 

Proving the Value Industrial Engineers Bring to Healthcare

Due to the unique product that hospitals produce -- healthy patients -- proving the value an IE perspective brings is a bit more challenging than showing improvement on a manufacturing line. In manufacturing, you can predict that a quality product will be produced in a timely manner given the correct input of supplies and the assumption that frontline workers are doing their jobs efficiently. Unfortunately, the healthcare field doesn’t have this luxury. Patients are unpredictable. Surgeries, emergency rooms, outpatient clinics, etc. are prone to unforeseen challenges. Even with the correct supplies and when accounting for staff variability, the patients coming in the door and their conditions are random. In one sense, this is great news for an IE. There are many opportunities for processes to be improved, standardized and organized. On the flip side, it’s hard to quantify the value add with unreliable inputs. Therefore, linking improvements and the value of an IE’s work to increase revenue and improved patient safety is a difficult yet vital task.

With healthcare costs continuing to rise, a large part of being an IE in healthcare is providing the opportunity to reduce costs by improving efficiencies and increasing throughput. Again, this is true in most industries, but the inconsistency of patients and conditions creates a unique challenge. Due to this variability, it takes either a large-scale project or a series of smaller-scale projects to impact your bottom line. For example, if the success of a project relies on the assumption that X number of patients will be saving Y amount of time and therefore the hospital will be saving Z amount of money, we need to be able to identify the value of X (number of patients) within a certain range. Due to the unpredictability of healthcare and the number of variables impacting the system in this example, it takes more patients to guarantee the saving outweighs the cost of implementation. This can be either a large-scale project impacting many patients (big X) or a series of small projects with an inconsistent number of patients being impacted at different times (summation of X’s). This can make proving the guaranteed savings or value of an IE difficult, but all challenges lead to an even greater opportunity.  

Understanding and articulating the value of IEs in healthcare is a necessary skillset required for success in this industry. In manufacturing plants, there are jobs clearly defined that appropriately fit the mold of a traditional IE background. In healthcare, it’s a free-for-all. Combing through job descriptions to understand the skills and requirements of the job requires thinking about how an IE’s skillset can be applied to the role and how that would provide value to the company. This links back to the importance of having a passion for being an IE in healthcare. Being able to prove and articulate the value of an IE opens IEs up to a wide range of roles in operations, software, and quality. Even if the job description has no mention of requiring an IE degree or experience in process improvement, you may be able to prove an IE’s worth to a role to get a hospital’s buy-in for job opportunities. Being able to articulate and translate the value of an IE will not only provide career opportunities in healthcare, but also assist in optimizing the implementation of your future projects.

Gleaning Insight from ALL Perspectives

Another secret weapon to breaking into healthcare is networking and utilizing the ones who came before you. These colleagues and peers are already creating IE paths in healthcare and have most likely gone down the wrong one a time or two. Understanding how they navigated sticky situations and access to their advice for your career are invaluable. Opportunities to network can come from joining a new group such as the Society for Health Systems (SHS), attending conferences such as the Healthcare Systems Process Improvement Conference, getting involved with local healthcare focused chapters, or asking someone for a cup of coffee and a chat. As previously mentioned, everyone in the healthcare industry is there because they genuinely are passionate about making healthcare better and helping patients. Therefore, helping you become better within the field will result in a positive impact within the healthcare industry and virtually everyone will jump at the chance to help guide you. The hardest part is asking. Always be on the hunt for the next opportunity to network with a person with an exciting or interesting career path (spoiler alert: it’s not always an IE within healthcare).

As IEs, we consider all perspectives of a process to better understand how to improve it. The same is true when considering career paths, especially in healthcare. Healthcare provides you with a ton of varying viewpoints (nurses, physicians, technicians, executive leadership, healthcare administration, residents, etc.) Often, understanding the qualities others are looking for in their process improvement expert is more eye-opening than talking to someone with the same perspective as you. No one is off limits. If talking to a particular individual will give you better insight into the healthcare field, help you understand how you can impact patient care, or recognize an area of healthcare you previously thought was off limits for IEs, don’t be afraid…just ask!

So You STILL Want to be in Healthcare: What’s Next?

Being an IE in healthcare is an extremely rewarding career path. The challenges and various pathways your career can take are exciting and allow immense opportunities not found in other industries. The joy of knowing you are impacting patients and families, although indirectly, when they need it most is a feeling that makes it all more than worth it.

Having the right type of passion, the dedication for gaining clinical knowledge, being able to prove an IE’s worth, and asking for insight isn’t going to guarantee you a spot in the healthcare arena, but it’s a necessary starting point. Prior to making the leap into healthcare, make sure you can say with confidence that these qualities and skills are ones you possess or are willing to develop. The path to a successful career in healthcare with an IE background is winding and unclear, so all we can do is continue to keep making a path.