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‘A different energy’: Industrial engineering students shaking up healthcare delivery in Nova Scotia

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Dalhousie University industrial engineering student Trent Rice smiles at the camera, wearing a black polo shirt.

By: Heide Pearson

When people think “healthcare optimization,” they may not often think of industrial engineers being one of the essential pieces of the puzzle. But in fact, industrial engineers are embedded throughout the Nova Scotia healthcare system, and put their innovative and analytical minds to work to transform how healthcare providers and patients move through the healthcare system.  

From the One Person One Record program and facilities management to structuring clinic schedules, industrial engineers are welcoming Dalhousie University industrial engineering co-op students, like Trent Rice, thanks to a partnership between the Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub and Mitacs.  

“It's all about saving time and making everything more efficient,” Rice said. “In a hospital setting, with people and patients and moving patients through a clinic better and faster and more efficient." 

Rice– a third-year student at Dalhousie – spent a large part of his co-op focusing on the appointment structure and staffing of nurses at the hematology clinic in the Victoria General Hospital.  

The clinic, which had been seeing both benign and malignant patients every day and needed to staff nurses accordingly, was noticing a strain on resources.  

They approached the industrial engineering team to ask for help determining whether shifting their model to seeing malignant patients for 3.5 days a week and benign patients 1.5 days a week, would help.  

Analyzing roughly two years' worth of appointment data, Rice, with the help of his supervisors, determined changing the clinic structure was not the best solution, and posed an even better one: cross-train all the department’s nurses so they can provide care for both benign and malignant patients, every day. That solution not only alleviated the staffing struggles, it also gives the department more flexibility when it comes to staffing as a whole, including covering absences like vacations and sick time.  

“They're sort of reworking how cancer care is going to work in Nova Scotia,” Rice said.  

“In the future, instead of working on one of those subgroups, each of those nurses will work on all the different ones. Now [they] can really divvy up the work evenly.”  

Rice said the model is being used in several clinics across the country, and appears to be gaining popularity as clinics and hospitals look to provide seamless care to patients.  

Rice’s work during his co-op also included digitizing the incident management response process in the Northern Zone, automating the process for logging delays in offloading patients at the Aberdeen, Colchester and Cumberland hospitals, and optimizing wheelchair part storage in the Central Zone.  

Victoria Oliver, an industrial engineer with Nova Scotia Health who was one of Rice’s supervisors, said it was great to see him “bring to life” all the theoretical knowledge he’d gained in school, creating new practical processes for practitioners from paramedics to nurses.  

“I think any young people in healthcare, it's nice. It brings a different energy,” she said.  

“They're seeing maybe in black and white, where we've been seeing in gray, which is sometimes a good thing, because they're able to point out when things could be done differently.” 

Rice enjoyed his co-op so much, he’s considering making his career in industrial healthcare engineering.  

“I think healthcare is actually it. It rubbed off on me during the term,” he said as he prepares to start his fourth year of studies in the fall.  

“It's definitely in the back of my mind to come back.” 

Mitacs is a national non-profit that brings innovation within reach for organizations of all sizes and across all sectors by providing access to highly skilled talent, a deep network of research experts and co-investment in research and development. 

The $1.4 million Health Innovation Hub and Mitacs partnership grant, announced in 2023, allows industrial engineering interns and post-doctoral fellows to embed themselves in the healthcare system and work toward widespread system change.