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May 16, 2012

ISU class works with hospital on projects

TERRE HAUTE — Several Indiana State University students swallowed their anxiety as they started discussing their group projects — presenting to dozens of managers, supervisors and senior leaders at Union Hospital.

An ISU operations management class teamed with hospital employees for multiple projects that helped the students become green belt certified in Lean Six Sigma, an industry-recognized method for problem-solving and continuous improvement. The projects ranged from increasing maternity ward satisfaction to analyzing patient treatment time. Several hospital employees suggested the projects and discussed them with the class.

“Union Hospital was very welcoming with open arms to us,” said Wesley Fishero, a senior business administration major from Hillsboro. “They helped us with whatever we needed and answered our questions.”

Students were surprised by the depth of the projects.

“Originally, when we had started the projects, the emotion that I got was sheer terror … but as the class progressed the first month or so, it eased up and we had an idea of what we were doing,” said Jason Swartzell, an operations management major from Modesto, Calif. “We had the different steps to cut the problem into small, bite-sized pieces that we could take one at a time until we ended up with projects that were far out of scope with what I thought I was capable of doing, and it became easy.”

ISU senior Brittany Jones, an operations management major from Clinton, created a survey to determine why certain aspects of maternity ward patients’ experiences tested in a separate survey scored lower than others. Union Hospital officials knew of the low results, and wanted to determine the cause.

“I had one small project, but it was one of those projects that really required someone to take time and drill down to see what the problem was,” said Dr. Joanne Goldbort, director of maternal and child services at Union Hospital, “and this was just a perfect opportunity.”

By surveying the patients, Jones and Goldbort learned that a communication issue about an entrance that was kept closed overnight caused confusion among some patients during those nighttime hours. Once they realized the problem, Jones even created a potential solution.

“That’s what I like about Six Sigma, is that you don’t just get the numbers and the facts,” Jones said. “You have to really be creative and think outside the box.”

The students worked on four different projects with the hospital, including several administrative processes and procedures. On one project, students analyzed an internal evaluation process; on another project, a student group examined the medical reconciliation process when patients are discharged.

“Operations and supply chain management as a business discipline always has a stigma associated with it that it’s all about people who want to go into manufacturing and improve the operations of a manufacturing facility,” said Ken Jones, senior lecturer who taught the class. “With Union Hospital, I think we demonstrated that there is a huge need in the services sector for the kind of skills that our students have.”

During the semester, the class would regularly meet at the hospital and learn the different steps of the Six Sigma technique. “Between our class sessions we would meet with our contact at Union to start discussing the problem and using the things we were learning in the class and applying it to the problem as we were learning it,” said Derek Heinz, a senior majoring in operations management from Vincennes.

The projects culminated in the group presentations to Union Hospital employees, which many of the students found to be intimidating, though they coped. Fishero found his own way to approach the audience, which allowed him to lose focus of all the people in the room.

“I was scared to death,” he said of the speech. “I didn’t want to give that presentation in front of that many people, but as we gave our presentation, I found that it was easy. I prefer to give a presentation to 100 people rather than five now after that.”

Union Hospital’s senior leadership was impressed with the students’ work on the projects, said Jeanette Spradlin, vice president of quality for the hospital. Several of the students’ suggested findings are being implemented, and others are being reviewed, she added.

“All the employees who worked directly with the students were so impressed with their ability to pick up the medical terminology, processes and overall Union culture,” Spradlin said. “The students integrated nicely with our teams, provided great input and recommendations, and developed solid implementation plans.”

The projects may not be the end of the work. Hospital officials are taking some of the recommendations for the maternity ward situation under consideration. The projects provided several advantages, including being a great way for students to network with business leaders at Union, Swartzell said.

“With the experiential learning that we’re championing here, we learned more in the four months that we spent at Union Hospital than we could have ever learned out of every Six Sigma book ever written on how to do this,” he added, “and how prepared we were afterwards is far and above anything you can ever accomplish in a classroom.”

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