Taking a Systems Engineering Approach to Equitable Health Care

June 28, 2022

It will take a systems engineering approach to develop the solutions to current health disparities stemming from racism, writes Olin College President Gilda A. Barabino and co-author in the American Scientist.

President Barabino has co-authored the June 2022 American Scientist article, Suffocating from Medical Biaswith fellow writer Harriet B. Nembhard, Dean of the College of Engineering and a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Iowa. Nembhard's research takes a multidisciplinary approach to improving complex systems across manufacturing and health care. 

The authors write: 

The United States is in the midst of a public health crisis, reeling from two serious pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Everyone is familiar with the impact of the virus. The categorization of racism as a pandemic may seem less obvious, but when viewed through the lens of systems engineering, racism in the American health care system can be seen to contain tightly linked problems of medicine, technology, design, leadership, and ethics. The intersections are myriad, bound in racial disparities that pervade all aspects of life, including such basic functions as the ability to breathe.

Barabino and Nembhard go on to say that taking a systems engineering approach to examining racism and health care allows researchers to tackle the extensive problem without losing sight of the details. They discuss the opportunities in engineering education and programs to improve pedagogy and promote inclusive practices to reduce racism and gender bias in areas such as medical device design.

As systems thinkers, engineers are well positioned to apply a systems approach to derive solutions to health disparities stemming from racism. We have been incorporating some of these connections into engineering education. But we can do more.

Olin President Gilda A. Barabino stands at the podium in Norden Auditorium during a recent campus event.

The question becomes what practices, interventions, and resolutions will help to achieve equitable health care for all people.

The critical work ahead of us in engineering education is to enhance understanding of the causal relationships in American heath care, as well as the increasingly vast research that is expanding our knowledge of racism as a health determinant.

President Gilda A. Barabino