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By showing Kansas safety net clinics how they can use resources most efficiently, K-State engineers' research helping low-income, uninsured Kansans with their health care

By Erinn Barcomb-Peterson

 

When low-income and uninsured Kansans get sick or need routine medical care, they often rely on one of nearly 80 clinics in the state that help the medically underserved.

Because of research being done by Kansas State University engineers, those clinics will get insight on how to operate more efficiently, benefiting the health of their patients.

"We do a lot of projects with heath care. It's an area of emphasis in our department," said David Ben-Arieh, K-State professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. "We work with almost every type of hospital in this area."

That departmental interest in health care prompted Ben-Arieh and Chih-Hang "John" Wu, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, to look at the efficiency of so-called safety net clinics. These clinics provide health care to Kansans who otherwise may not get it.

Ben-Arieh and Wu received a grant from K-State's Center for Engagement and Community Development. Using data from clinics represented by the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, the engineers are measuring which clinics are the most efficient and what lessons other clinics can learn from them.

To do this, Ben-Arieh and Wu are using a method called Data Envelopment Analysis, or DEA, an analytical model that compares efficiencies regardless of size. This means that larger clinics that benefit from economies of scale can learn a thing or two from smaller clinics, and these smaller clinics may be able to adopt ideas from their larger counterparts.

The engineers are looking at data like numbers of patients, size of staff, budget and space in the clinics and weighing them against the clinics' outputs, which can be data like numbers of X-rays taken or amount of medicine dispensed. From there, Ben-Arieh and Wu will be able to tell which clinics are getting the most bang for their buck; that is, the clinics on the frontier of the analysis are the ones doing the most with the least.

"Once we know which ones are on the frontier, we can then calculate for all of the other clinics and see what they are missing," Ben-Arieh said. "We'll see not only the point at which they are inefficient, but why. For example, maybe if they installed a couple more X-ray machines, they could move to the frontier."

The engineers will share their results with the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, and then also will compare clinics' performance based on type -- urban or rural -- and type of funding -- federal or local.

Ben-Arieh said that a long-range goal of the research is to apply this methodology to Kansas hospitals as well, and then conduct the analysis at a national level.