Engineers help Toronto hospital ensure patient safety

A trio of engineering students has come up with a list of recommendations to help a Toronto hospital emergency department ensure that patient blood samples don’t get mixed up.

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre is considering implementing suggestions made by Ben de Mendonca, Josh Vandermeer and Andrew Phibbs, fourth-year students who earlier this year conducted an intensive examination of the system used by the emergency department to collect and label patient blood samples.

Their work was for a capstone project, which requires upper-level students to solve real-world problems by putting to use knowledge they’ve gained while studying here, and was recently presented to a group of fellow students and engineering department faculty members. The team was advised by Zbigniew Pasek, an associate professor in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.

Like in any other hospital in Canada, there are opportunities for errors to occur when labelling vials, said de Mendonca, who did a 16-month co-op placement at Sunnybrook.

“An error usually occurs if there’s an interruption in the process or if there’s an extended delay between the time the sample is collected and the time the label is printed,” he said. “Best practice is to label at bed side, but given the nature of working in a busy emergency department, that doesn’t always happen.”

Other mistakes that might occur include drawing insufficient quantities, clotted blood or samples that have hemolyzed, which means red cells have begun to break down, which is sometimes due to an error in the collection technique.

To combat these mistakes, the student group recommended collecting samples at the triage station; printing a bar code on the patient wrist band and on the labels and using a scanner to ensure the two match; outfitting doctors with personal digital assistant devices to allow them to access patient information collected during admission; and hiring a full-time phlebotomist, a specialist who does nothing but draw blood for lab analysis. Implementing those recommendations could reduce the patient length of stay by two to six hours, de Mendonca said.

Sunnybrook is very transparent about its patient safety challenges and having students shine a light on the potential for error in its emergency department was a useful exercise, said Ru Taggar, the hospital's director of quality and patient safety.

“We now have a greater awareness of the root causes of some of these experiences and now we can focus on how we might be able to change some of our practices,” she said. “Using industrial engineers is not something traditionally associated with health care. Many of our clinicians have been asking for Ben to come back and help out with a variety of our systems and processes. They certainly see the value in the skill set that industrial engineers bring to our facility.”

The capstone team discussing their project.

Josh Vandermeer, left, goes over some of the finer points of his capstone project with Andrew Phibbs, centre, and Ben de Mendonca.

News Story Courtesy of UWin Daily News