Sharon Johnson - Health Systems Engineering

It’s no question: the healthcare system is complicated. Professor Sharon Johnson, associate professor of industrial and management engineering at the WPI Foisie School of Business, may help things run a bit smoother.

Johnson’s research focuses on how Lean management, a tool first developed by Toyota in the automotive industry, can be implemented in a healthcare setting. With the help of both graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of backgrounds, including computer science and management, Johnson hopes to improve healthcare operations.

The goal of Johnson’s research is two-fold: to first collect data in a clinical setting, using metrics such as: “How many patients frequent a clinic? How long are they there for? What types of care do they need?”, and second, to interpret this data in a way that is both meaningful and useful for healthcare providers. Applying a business mindset, Johnson evaluates the clinic’s supply and demand, and the available resources. This way, Johnson and her collaborators can begin to strategize methods and procedures that help clinics run more efficiently.

Her most recent project is being developed in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to facilitate improved screening for suicide risk in patients who arrive at the emergency room. As Johnson explains, “It turns out that relative to the normal population at large, the people who present to the Emergency Department have higher risk of suicide.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, Johnson’s objective is to develop a protocol that will help healthcare providers screen for increased suicide risk, without disrupting the normal operations of the department. In such a busy and fast-paced environment, it is difficult for healthcare providers to find the time, she adds.

When it comes to applying lean methodology in healthcare, Johnson seeks to answer the question, “How do you motivate people to make improvements, and sustain them?”