Vanessa Morales, HEPS Master’s 2014

morales_interviewVanessa Morales was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and raised in Tampa, FL. She graduated from the University of South Florida with her BS IMSE degree in 2013. During her time at USF, she was an active member of IIE and was both treasurer and vice president. During her time as an undergraduate she was an intern for VHA, Southeast Inc. a healthcare consulting company based in Tampa. The fall after her graduation she began her masters in Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan with a concentration in Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety. At Michigan, she was involved in research projects with The University of Michigan’s Health Systems Children Hospital, and Cancer Center. Vanessa graduated with her MSE in December of 2014 and will go on to work as a Management Engineer for Duke Health System in Durham, North Carolina starting in February.

Disclaimer: This is a transcript from a verbal interview

What kind of research are you excited about?
I am excited about hospital operations so projects that have to do with coming into a clinical setting, being given a problem, figuring out the best solution to the problem is, working through it and find the best methodology to the problem, and seeing results. Less abstract, more practical, and more hands on research.

What problems are keeping you up at night?
It was crazy over the summer! I had so many things going on. We were doing the IOE 310 optimization problem sets, we were meeting with the doctors, and we were presenting at conferences. We were working on the slides, getting the right data, and doing the analysis correctly for the doctors to use in their abstracts. There was a lot going on, but that’s the beauty of it because there were so many things floating around we never got bored. They were all kind of keeping me up. I started to dream about research so that was interesting!

How do you think engineers and healthcare professionals can work together to improve patient care?
In many ways! The first thing is just talking to each other and finding out what each other do. If a doctor meets with an engineer and learns what the engineer can do for them, that’s already a new perspective that they have towards engineering and the type of work they do. If they don’t talk to each other, they won’t know the possibilities to collaborate and to get things done. It is also very important from the engineering standpoint to understand how the clinicians think in order to solve these problems in the context they are supposed to be solved. In solving these complex issues, it’s critical to not misinterpret things, and understand it from the clinician and patient point of view. This is very crucial because the clinicians know the setting the best.

What makes CHEPS unique compared to other teams or projects you have been a part of?
The accountability factor. I think all the students here have a strong sense and passion for what they do. The students here aren’t just students, but they are hardworking individuals with a lot of unique and innovative ideas. Everybody is responsible for his or her work. There is not a lazy team member. Everyone here cares a lot about what they do and they put in their best effort.

What do you like most about working with CHEPS?
I love the dynamics of it. It’s very crazy at times. There are a lot of different projects, a lot of different students with different backgrounds and perspectives and skills and we are all collaborating toward the same effort. Sometimes it makes it difficult to collaborate in terms of logistics because of the variety of students, but it makes it also very fun. Everyone is more or less the same age so you’re not just able to work with them, but be friends with them. I made amazing friends at CHEPS!

What surprised you most about working with healthcare professionals?
Lack of communication in some instances. Healthcare and hospitals are very complicated. Clinicians have a really tough job, but what was most surprising is that they don’t necessarily talk to each other as much as I thought they would. I remember going to do observations with the nursing staff on the inpatient unit at Mott, the Children’s hospital and talking to the nurse about her day to day. When asked about collaboration with the physicians, the nurse said, “We just look through the computer and guess. Sometimes you’ll see an order that is out of whack and we’ll go back to them and ask if they really wanted to order that and that’s how we communicate.” I wish clinicians talked to each other more because I feel like patient care would be more streamlined if it was coordinated in that way.

How has working with healthcare professionals changed or altered your way of thinking about healthcare problems?
I realize there is no right or wrong answer necessarily. It is not black and white. There are a lot of grey areas and it has a lot to do with how people feel. How do you deliver this message? How do you present yourself? How are you viewed? In engineering, you’re taught to think very analytically, right or wrong, do this or that. However, there is so much in between in healthcare and it makes it much more interesting than any other domain, especially because we are working with patients, not widgets.
I also don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t assume more than I know. I try to gain more information than is needed to solve a problem because you could very easily, be solving the wrong problem.

How has CHEPS influenced your plans for the future?
I can no longer work in any other domain or industry other than healthcare. Now, I am for life committed to healthcare and will never do anything else. Healthcare is awesome!

How is CHEPS preparing you for the “real-world”?
So many ways! There is no definite structure with these research projects. It’s not like a textbook where you have the problem and you know what tools to use. I think they are asking you to be creative and think logically in the real world. There is no easy way to do things. You really have to look at everything from different angles, from different methods, and use trial and error. You are going to get it wrong a lot. CHEPS has taught me to use all these skills in many different ways and put them together. If I had a probability statistics course, I learned how solve only those types problem there. However, in the real world, you might have to apply bits from every class, and put these all together in one story and have them make sense. You are delivering the message to people who are sometimes not engineers and you have to make them understand that what you are doing actually makes sense.

What is one concrete example of something that has changed/improved or could change/improve in the future due to the projects you’re working on?
The project I am working on now is called, “Predicting Disposition for Patients at Mott Children’s Hospital” and we gather all this data from when a patient comes to the ED. Over time, we gather more data on how they are doing in terms of medications, vitals, and other clinical aspects and we try to predict using mathematical algorithms what the outcome for the patient is going to be, whether they are going to be discharged or admitted.
In the future, I see advancement in trying to incorporate this machine learning or data mining aspect into electronic health records. We have all this data and I think it can be used strategically to help physicians make their decisions. However, not necessarily make them for the physicians because ultimately, the physicians are the ones who are making them, but an aid would be really great, such as a decision support system.

Originally published 2/12/15.