Hospitalists as Industrial Engineers


Wikipedia defines “industrial engineering” as a branch of engineering that deals with the optimization of complex processes or systems. It goes on to link industrial engineering to “operations” and use of quantitative methods to “specify, predict, and evaluate” results. Any hospitalist that’s been tapped to reduce length of stay, help manage readmissions, implement an electronic health record, or increase the quality of care likely can relate to that definition. It seems to me that hospitalists often are the de facto industrial engineers in many of our hospitals.

The hospitalist as an industrial engineer makes perfect sense. What other group of physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants provide services in virtually any clinical venue, from ED to DC, from (occasionally) PACU to ICU, the wards, and even post-discharge? Hospitalists see it all, from the first few hours of life (pediatrics) to life’s last stages (palliative care) and all stages in between. As a parody to “there’s an app for that,” Dr. Mindy Kantsiper, a hospitalist in Columbia, Md., says if there’s something that needs to be fixed, “there’s a hospitalist for that.” We are the Swiss Army knives of the medical world.

So many of us were trained that to make improvements, we just need to “be better,” to know more, try harder, and to work longer. Good industrial engineers design systems that make it easier for our doctors, healthcare providers, and patients to succeed.

Looking through the HMX “Practice Management” discussions on the SHM website ( confirms my belief. Topics are as varied as using RNs in hospitalist practices, medication reconciliation, billing, outpatient orders (!!) after discharge, and patient-centered care/patient satisfaction. And that was just the last two weeks!

Type “hospitalist” into PubMed, and the words that auto-populate are: model, care, quality, discharge, communication, program, and handoff—all words I think of as system-related issues. Oh, sure, there are clinical-related topics, too, of course, just like for the “organ-based” specialties. However, none of the common organ-based specialties had any words auto-populate in PubMed that could be deemed related to “industrial engineering.”

Engineer Training

Like all engineers, we de facto industrial engineers need tools and skills to be effective at in our new engineering role. While we may not need slide rules and calculus like a more traditional engineer, many of the new skills we will need as industrial engineers were not taught in medical school, and the tools were not readily available for us to use in our training.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of options for us budding, de facto industrial engineers. Here are the ones I believe you will need and where to get them:

Skill No. 1: Negotiation.

HM is a team sport, and teams bring interpersonal dynamics and tension and conflict. Effective negotiation skills can help hospitalists use conflict to spur team growth and development rather than team dysfunction.

Tools: SHM’s Leadership Academies have effective negotiation modules in each of the leveled courses. If you can’t spare the time, then books to read include “Getting to Yes” by Fisher and Ury, or “Renegotiating Health Care” by Leonard Marcus (he lectures at SHM’s leadership academies).

Skill No. 2: Data analytics.

All engineers, including industrial engineers, need to be able to evaluate. Whether it’s quality and safety, clinical operations, or financial improvement, if you don’t measure it, you can’t change it. Some of the data will be handed to you, and you need to know the strengths and weaknesses to best interpret it. Some data you will need to define and develop measurement systems for on your own, and even basic dashboard development requires understanding data.

Tools: Wow. There are a lot here, so I am only going to mention the highlights. You could get your MBA, or MPH, or even a PhD! You certainly could train to become a “true” diploma-carrying industrial engineer. And I know of a few insightful hospitals that employ them. A less in-depth, but cheaper and faster, option is to take specific courses related to your area of interest.

The SHM-AAIM Quality and Safety Educators Academy and SHM’s Leadership Academies are two great examples. Participating in a mentored project (i.e., Project BOOST) provides structure and an experienced mentor with a cadre of experts to back them up. Many institutions have courses on data analytics, basic finance, and quality improvement. The easiest, cheapest, and probably the most common is to find a mentor at your own institution. CFOs, CNOs, CQOs, and CMOs often are eager to partner with clinicians—and frequently are delighted to talk about their areas of expertise.

Skill No. 3: Leadership.

I don’t know many leaders who were born that way. Most learned through experience and continuous self-improvement. Understanding your personality traits, the traits of others (as an introvert, I still am trying to understand how extroverts work, especially my wife), and how to get all of those different personalities to work together as a team is an important component of any team-based engineering success.

Tools: I have found the books “From Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath to be invaluable. I think another one of my recent reads, “Drive” by Daniel Pink, had important lessons, too. Formal courses, such as SHM’s Leadership Academies, QSEA, and those offered by the American Hospital Association, are designed to provide hospitalists with the leadership skills they need in a variety of hospital environments.

Skill No. 4: Thinking “system” instead of “individual.”

So many of us were trained that to make improvements, we just need to “be better,” to know more, try harder, and to work longer. Good industrial engineers design systems that make it easier for our doctors, healthcare providers, and patients to succeed. Of course, we need to be accountable, too, but supportive systems are a key component to successful individuals. The airline industry learned this long ago.

Tools: I really think “Switch” is an excellent read for those of us trying to help re-engineer our complex systems. It discusses how humans are both rational and emotional, and how our environment can help both sides succeed. Another helpful tool for me is asking “why” whenever someone says “if only they would do something differently for a better outcome…”

For example, “if only the hospitalists would discharge before 2 p.m.,” or “if only the ED didn’t clump their admissions,” or “if only the nurse didn’t call during rounds”—these are all classic systems problems, not people problems, and the solution isn’t to mandate 2 p.m. discharges, or stand up in a meeting finger pointing at the ED, or admonish a nurse for calling during rounds. The solution is to find out why these behaviors occur, then eliminate, change, or minimize the reasons.

Hospitalists don’t discharge by 2 p.m. often because they are waiting on tests; ED docs work in an environment that has highly variable workloads, coupled with dysfunctional systems that promote “batching” work patterns; and nurses may not be included in rounds but still need to be able to manage minute-to-minute patient-care needs. Sure, there are a few bad apples that need to be scolded, but I bet most of the issues at your hospital aren’t related to evildoers but good people who are often trapped in dysfunctional, antiquated systems and are just trying to do the best they can for their patients.

In Closing

I’d like to say thank you to all of the “de facto” industrial engineers out there. Keep up the critically important work of that most complex system—the hospital.

Dr. Howell is president of SHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview in Baltimore, and spends a significant part of his time and research on hospital operations. Email questions or comments to

Next Article:

   Comments ()