TTU undergrad engineers better service for cancer patients

Cancer patients seeking treatment at Cookeville Regional Medical Center are likely to be more comfortable and better informed thanks to a Tennessee Tech University engineering student working with the Cancer Center to improve patient satisfaction.

Alison Wachs, a senior industrial and systems engineering major, recently completed a project designed to address three areas — facility navigation, waiting room comfort and pre-radiation treatment information — that she and CRMC Cancer Center staff determined could be improved in order to better serve patients. Wachs says the project illustrates her idea of what a career in engineering can and should be.

"You have to use your engineering skills to understand how a system works, but you also have to remember that every system involves people," said Wachs. "People aren't like machines or products, so it's important to create a bridge between engineering and the people we serve."

According to a recent survey, most current patients are very satisfied with their experience in the CRMC waiting room, but Wachs focused on improving areas patients said were most important to them. For instance, due to recent construction, some patients find it difficult to navigate going in and out of the center. Wachs' recommendations to improve the facility's navigation included signage and color-coded pathways. The signage will be incorporated into the center's new facility when completed.

Lisa Bagci, CMRC Cancer Center director, says Wachs brought a prospective to the project that was essential to its success.

"Alison gave us a fresh set of eyes and an objective perspective," said Bagci. "She took the time to research the best practices of other cancer centers and even role-played as a patient to make sure she understood what it was like to spend time in the waiting room or have someone explain radiation treatments to her."

As a result, Wachs made several recommendations based on her research of cognitive and physical ergonomics about the way a waiting room functions and how to make the time spent there more beneficial and pleasant.  She looked at the importance and satisfaction value of different aspects of the waiting room, including room temperature, seating comfort, room noise, and magazine selection. In her final recommendation, she suggested the use of volunteers in the waiting room.

"A volunteer who greets patients, hands out magazines and offers food and drink can be so important because the encouragement and interaction makes patients who commonly have a lack of appetite more likely to eat or drink," said Wachs.

Wachs also focused on patients with low literacy levels who have difficulty reading through the large amount of printed important information given to each patient.

"Visual aids are one way to help patients with low literacy levels better understand the information in print," said Wachs.

Wachs also recommended check sheets to be placed in the charts to record that all pertinent information about radiation treatment was covered in a standardized manner with the patients.

Bagci says Wachs' suggestions for more effective communication and waiting room comfort were low cost ideas that can be put in practice in the center's new facility also. The cost estimated to implement all Wachs' recommendations was less than $1,600.

"I want to build a career on using my engineering skills to decrease healthcare costs and improve patient service and satisfaction," said Wachs, who won a national award from the Society of Health Systems, a division of the Institute of Industrial Engineers, for her paper describing the project.

The daughter of Drs. Joy and Peter Wachs, the 2002 graduate of Johnson County High School in Mountain City plans to graduate from TTU in May.