Designing the healthcare systems of the future, one model at a time

Publication date
Tuesday, 9 Apr 2019

When you’re talking to a multidisciplinary audience, sometimes you have to turn to universal experiences.

So how does an electrical engineer explain to a conference full of healthcare professionals the effect that time-variant, non-stationary systems can have on a system response?

“If I have a beer on an empty stomach, the result is going to be vastly different to when I have a beer on a full stomach,” explained Dr Willem van Meurs, a medical training simulator designer currently visiting The Australian National University (ANU).

“The inputs are the same, but the outcome is very different.”

Engineers are used to thinking about the interconnections and complexities of systems, but not so much surgeons, or medical students, or governments for that matter.

Yet healthcare is all about systems. You just need to look at the physiological systems that regulate bleeding after trauma such as a car accident. Or the policy and delivery systems that help junior doctors make lifesaving decisions about critically ill patients.

A new joint initiative from the ANU College of Health and Medicine and the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science will bring together different ways of thinking about systems with a powerful initiative which connects futuristic technology to the real world of medicine.

“Professor Elanor Huntington and I are pleased to be funding new cross disciplinary research focusing on systems thinking in health and medicine,” says Professor Russell Gruen, Dean, ANU College of Health and Medicine.

“This exciting new discipline is critical to connect the dots, and to design the health systems of the future, using a systems thinking approach.

“Our initial focus will include anatomical, physiological and health systems in acute care, including emergency medicine and intensive care.”

Initial funding from the two Colleges will enable new joint academic positions, including two postdoctoral positions.

“We hope this will become a new area of research and education at ANU, and we will start this by promoting policy engagement and education strategies,” says Professor Gruen.

Taking such a systems thinking approach will help design better healthcare systems and provide healthcare professionals with more tailored training to make more informed decisions.

The announcement was made at the 2019 conference on Applied Modelling in Acute Care, held at ANU in early April, where researchers thought about the ways that various healthcare systems interact.  

“If you think about diabetes for example, this is essentially a biochemical problem, but it’s also about specific organs, the individual and the healthcare system around that person,” says Dr Willem van Meurs.  

“To take care of patients we need to understand all of these different levels. That is why this conference was a very useful way for us to all become more aware of how these levels interact.”

The conference honoured academics for novel ways of applying systems thinking.

  • Associate Professor Hanna Suominen from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science was awarded the Jan Beneken Prize for her presentation on machine learning and natural language processing to findrelevant health information when it is needed.
  • Dr Nicolo Malagutti, also from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, was awarded the Nicolaas Westerhof Prize for his presentation on open-loop real-time estimation of individual pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic response parameters using particle filtering.

The conference, the fourth of its kind, originated from an event honouring the physiologic modeling work of Jan Beneken, former professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

It brought together experts from diverse fields including medicine, epidemiology, physics, space science, mathematics, surgery, 3D printing and medical engineering.

But perhaps the most illuminating insights were from the many ANU students involved in discussions.

As one ANU medical student remarked: “I never thought I could contribute to healthcare through my background in mathematics”.

With thinking like this, the future for using modeling to design better healthcare systems looks bright.