Health systems engineering is the wave of the future — one that will help increase access to medical care, introduce efficiencies and improve patient care — and Florida Polytechnic University is once again on the cutting edge.

The university is starting a new undergraduate concentration in health systems engineering (HSE), combining the STEM discipline Florida Poly students already possess with health care delivery, said Dr. Grisselle Centeno, director of the program and professor in the Department of Data Science and Business Analytics. It is the only undergraduate-level concentration of its kind in the state.

“We have an opportunity to differentiate our students and ourselves, offering this great program,” Centeno said. “Health care problems are very complex, and there is a lot of expertise involved in multiple STEM fields. Florida Poly has students, facilities and faculty talent with very diverse access to a network of health care collaborators like Lakeland Regional Health (LRH) and Winter Haven Hospital.”

Although the idea floated around Florida Poly for years, it was just that until Centeno arrived in 2019 and started developing the program, building on research she had already performed. Now, she hopes BayCare (Winter Haven Hospital and Bartow Regional Medical Center), LRH and other potential partners will benefit from the new program.

“There are a lot of important things we’re trying to address,” Centeno said. “Over 20 years, we have heard from national agencies that have been highlighting the need to have systems engineering in place to approach health care. Everything has been enhanced with COVID-19,” including the need to increase access to health care, optimize clinical operations and improve patient experiences.

Data is at the heart of HSE, she said. “In terms of an organization, health care is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries. There are a lot of important data needs and economic impacts for health systems.”

U.S. health care spending grew 4.6 percent in 2018, reaching $3.6 trillion — 17.7 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. With an average of more than $11,000 per person in health care spending, it’s easy to see why this industry is critical.

“If you think about some of the largest employers in Polk County — LRH, Winter Haven Hospital, BayCare, Watson Clinic — then add medical supply companies like SteriPack and warehouse/distribution centers working with medical devices,” you can see how the industry affects our local economy, Centeno said. “That’s why we are training our students — so they can be immediate contributors.”

In hospitals, where more than one doctor may see a patient, HSE is critical, she said. “HSE will be able to develop engineering methods to examine health systems to find efficiencies and reduce error. What’s the patient level? Where are errors occurring, causing re-admissions? We can use those engineering methods for improvement and quality to tackle errors, improve safety and streamline processes to hopefully lead to more access and better efficiency.”

Celebrating the moment, Centeno acknowledged there’s still a lot of work to be done. But other faculty are engaged in the program, as is the community. “We are talking with research partners, organizations and industrial partners and they have this interest and are trying to learn. We are driven by problems that are relevant to the community. Lakeland Regional has the largest Emergency Department in the nation. I know the impact HSE will have, and I can’t wait to continue to work on this. It’s making a difference for a very significant social problem, which is health care.”

The HSE program allows students pursuing a degree in data science or business analytics to declare a concentration in HSE. Students majoring in computer science, or electrical, mechanical or computer engineering can also benefit from this program by pursuing an HSE certificate.

Students who elect this route can pursue careers in systems engineering, health informatics, health data science, medical device development and medical supply chain management.

Sophomore data science major Michael Ortiz said he is eager to declare the concentration next semester. “What motivates me is being able to wake up every morning and put my skills to use in a field that can really help people, not just businesses or profit margins.”

He’s one of the reasons Centeno is championing this program. “My passion for this is because of the huge opportunity that I can foresee to have an impact and to train our students and to give them plenty of options for them to practice before they go and join the workforce.”

Students who pick the HSE concentration will hear from doctors, nurses and health care consultants, who will discuss the importance of data, process improvement and other relevant health care issues.

And there’s icing on the cake, she said. “STEM always struggles with female representation. When you look at the composition of gender in health care, it’s the reverse. We hope that having this program will be attractive to engage and attract more female students.”

She said 40% of women who graduate with an engineering degree either never enter the workforce or leave it within four years. “That’s not the case within health care. It’s a huge attraction. We have great goals to try to entice female students and potential students.”