Lying on a gurney, waiting for surgery. A patient is probably thinking about the surgeon, anesthesiologist, nursing staff, family … anyone but an industrial engineer. That’s fine with Kevin Taaffe, because from his point of view, if the process surrounding surgery is smooth, efficient and safe, his research team has done its job.

Taaffe, Clemson University associate professor and graduate coordinator in industrial engineering, and his cross-disciplinary team of researchers are creating a smart app for clinicians and staff to give real-time information to patients, their families and hospital staff members during the entire perioperative process — a period defined as the time between patient check-in for surgery and either discharge or return to their rooms. During this critical time, any issues that arise can affect both quality of care and cost efficiencies.

“After interviewing members of the hospital surgical staff, we learned that the biggest obstacle to efficiency wasn’t a medical issue at all — it was communication. There are so many patients, nurses, technicians, resources and steps to the surgical process that staff members often find themselves making repeated phone calls for lab results, frequent requests to determine if a patient is ready for surgery and multiple visits to an OR to determine if the current surgical case will be closing soon — all because of a lack of real-time communication. We wanted to change that,” explains Taaffe.

Change had to begin with deeper understanding. So the team began by observing, interviewing and analyzing where problems tended to arise in the process. Research results led to a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant in 2012 that allowed them to turn their findings into a solution. The team — made up of Taaffe, Joel Greenstein, Clemson associate professor of industrial engineering, Larry Fredendall, Clemson professor of management, two professors from the University of South Carolina, a number of graduate students, and initial testing partners at Greenville Health System and Palmetto Health began their collaborative work on a solution that was portable, convenient and timely. As Taaffe says, “Sometimes the solution needs a business answer and sometimes it needs a technical answer. Our team has all the right people to address these questions that arise.”

Because the surgical unit of a hospital filled with patients is not a place to experiment, the team is using quality design methods, computer simulation modeling and machine learning approaches in their research labs to support the smart app development and education of the hospital staff. Such modeling allows the researchers to test a number of “what ifs” without disturbing patient care. As Taaffe says, “The patients are real people with unique issues. We would never want to disturb that or ignore that. With our modeling, we’re trying to improve processes to allow caregivers to actually focus on what they do best — patient care.”

The app, built from modeling outcomes, will improve communication and coordination of resources on the day of surgery, including such advances as providing updates for patients’ family members, alerting staff to schedule changes and tracking patient progress in real time. It will also hopefully lead to smoother scheduling and handling of elective and emergency cases in the future. The result stands to improve patient care and help control costs, the foremost topics in health care today.

Observing, building models, improving processes, seeking solutions. It’s the kind of challenge that has motivated Taaffe for his whole career and what he is instilling in his students every day.

Delivering real-world solutions — Head On