Aug. 6, 2008 —Take three graduate students from wildly divergent fields — say, business, nursing and architecture — and send them into the University of Virginia Medical Center with a mission: identify a real problem and come up with a real solution. Give them one semester to do it.
The result: A well-received proposal to change the way the hospital handles its supplies — a system that, if implemented, could save money and time and improve patient care.
A cross-disciplinary team of graduate students was able to accomplish the task as part of a new three-credit independent study course, "Bio-Innovation," piloted as a class elective this spring. The students shared their expertise under the guidance of professors from bio-engineering, architecture, nursing and business.
The graduate student experience is typically one of delving deeply into a topic within a field of study. Opportunities to share experience across disciplines don't occur often. Yet in the real world, collaboration is the way many issues and problems are solved, said David Chen, director of the Coulter Translational Partnership in Biomedical Engineering, one of the faculty members who helped lead the class.
"In the real world, in the professional world, people work on cross-professional levels," Chen said. "We wanted to create an environment that is problem-solving, that has the students create their own learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom."
"I was uncertain about what to expect from this course that had been described as a 'multidisciplinary class aimed at improving the work environment of the hospital,'" said Megan Ott, a pediatric nursing student. "I was curious and skeptical of how graduate students from other disciplines would envision this project."
Her partners were Kip Marshall from the School of Architecture and Darden student Avantika Chakravorty. The students, identified as being able to take on a project and run with it, were recruited to participate in the pilot.
The faculty selected a hospital unit in the Health System for the students to focus their attention. The students observed and talked with nurses, doctors, residents, staff and others working in the U.Va. Medical Center's 5 Central unit to identify a number of problems they might develop into projects.
The faculty and students gathered informally around a table each week and talked about the project from the perspective of their areas of expertise.
The faculty members acted as "foils," said Darden professor Philippe L. Sommer. As the students progressed, "we were giving them input on what was working and what was not."
A big hurdle for the students was learning to "speak each other's language," according to nursing professor Deborah Conway.
The potential projects identified by the students ranged from those that were "blue sky" — options that could be possible with unlimited finances and resources — to others that could be easily accomplished with a modest budget and more likely be adopted. In the end the students chose to bring their individual expertise and teamwork to address a system to reorganize the supply room.
"There were an overwhelming number of people we talked with who said the storage room is a definite issue," Ott said. The project also would not be limited by hospital policy or require a large expenditure of funds.
"It was a translational project," Marshall said. "Every storage room in the hospital is the same and has similar issues. It's a place that all who work in the unit use, and it directly affects patient care."
The students conducted time studies to evaluate how long it took to find needed supplies. They also looked at labeling, the way supplies are stocked and visibility of the storage bins.
Darden student Chakravorty brought her expertise in marketing to bear. Marketing studies have shown that what's at eye level catches more attention, so that's where you put the things that are most useful or will be used the most, she suggested. She also introduced a business strategy that addresses issues of value and waste, which dovetailed nicely with the Health System's Renoir Project, an initiative to cut supply costs and reduce waste, Conway said.
Ott's knowledge of hospital procedures and the combination of supplies needed to carry them out contributed invaluable information for reorganization and how to position and group supplies for speed and ease of gathering them.
Marshall's visual expertise came to play in deciding to color-code and label items with images to enhance identification and reduce possibilities of inaccuracies in addition to increasing ease of access.
"They looked at the same problem from different perspectives," Sommer said. "That's fabulous. That's what they will have to do outside academia, and the more we can expose them to these opportunities, the better they will be equipped to deal with life."
The students concluded in their report and presentation to the unit, hospital administrators and the University provost that the changes would provide savings to the hospital, increase work satisfaction and streamline workflow, and improve the patient experience. The ideas also could help define functional and operational issues for the planned hospital addition, Marshall said.
Chen said he is also working to acquire grants to address some of the other issues the students identified for future course projects.
All agreed the pilot course was a success and the faculty team plans to build on the experience and offer the class again in the spring.
"I think the course sets a really strong precedent for this type of class elsewhere at the University," Marshall said. "The biggest success of the class is that we all have a better understanding of working through problems with others from different backgrounds."
Ott added, "I believe this was one of the most rewarding courses I have taken in both undergraduate and graduate school at the University of Virginia