Healthcare delivery is a relatively untapped area in terms of academic investigation. This is perhaps a little surprising given the breadth of dimensions it offers researchers. From resource and capacity management to quality control, from productivity to decision-making under uncertainty, healthcare is a uniquely complex and rich space to explore, with the added potential to deliver substantive, real-world value in doing so.
So says Diwas KC, professor of information systems & operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School and a global authority on healthcare management.
For the last two decades, KC has explored many of the most pressing operational issues that healthcare systems face in the context of patient outcomes and spiraling costs. His research findings challenge basic assumptions about the way that modern hospitals should be managed, from the causal ties between sub-optimal triage frameworks and costly patient re-admittance to worker under-productivity and quality of care.
Balancing these operational challenges with the primary purpose of caregiving means that healthcare faces some of the most acute socio-economic issues of our time, noted KC, both in terms of complexity and scale. Rich pickings indeed for researchers.
“There are so many dimensions to healthcare delivery to investigate, and it’s a field that at the same time gives researchers a chance to make significant potential impact in care delivery,” KC said. “One of my research focuses is capacity management. Providers constantly have to figure out who to admit and who to discharge, and these are complex decisions characterized by trade-offs and uncertainty. And there are lots of insights, frameworks and tools from operations management that can be brought to bear both here and across all kinds of capacity allocation settings that define operational flow in hospitals.”
Since 2005, KC’s research has shed light on how to tackle the bottlenecks in patient flow through healthcare systems that tend to cluster around intensive care units — the most expensive resource in hospitals and, consequently, the most over-utilized.
Recently he has been interested in exploring the impact of policy and regulation in healthcare management and patient outcomes.
One of KC’s latest papers looks at another dimension of healthcare that has come under particular scrutiny from policy makers in recent times: advertising.
“In the U.S., some hospitals allocate a significant amount of budget on advertising, but until now it has been unclear whether this is effective in drawing in patients — and crucially, whether this kind of spending is wasteful given that it doesn’t directly impact caregiving.”
He finds that while advertising is successful in attracting patients from further afield and generating greater demand, it does not negatively impact patient outcomes. And it’s likely because the hospitals that spend money on ads also tend to be higher quality — so the more patients they draw in, the better the overall outcomes are in general.
It’s an insight, says KC, that can genuinely inform decision-making at the policy level — part of his goal of having real impact and finding real-world solutions to real-world problems.
Currently he is collaborating with Emory Healthcare, looking at potential ICU capacity shortages should there be successive outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S.
So, is he optimistic that American hospitals will have the resources and the wherewithal to overcome these unprecedented challenges?
“There is so much uncertainty about infection rates and a possible vaccine, and so many things that we still don’t know about this novel disease,” he said. “Something that does give me cause for optimism, however, is that we know more about the virus and how to more effectively mobilize our resources to treat it now than we did when it first emerged. But more than that, I have great belief in the capacity of the human spirit to prevail.”