A new Sauder research centre is looking for the cure to health care inefficiencies. Harnessing mathematical models, they’re crunching data generated by hospitals, labs, research centres and more to give practitioners in the field a whole new way of looking at their operations – and the information they need to fix them.

The Centre for Operations Research and Analytics in Health (CORAH) combines data with its faculty’s advanced analytical modelling expertise to improve health care decision-making.

The centre’s experts in Operations Research, Management Science and Analytics work closely with clinicians, managers and administrators to bring evidence-based solutions to the complex planning, operational and medical problems they face.

Analytics is the scientific process that uses mathematical, statistical and computational approaches to transform data into insight for making better decisions. And, considering the huge costs and high stakes, nowhere are the potential benefits more valuable to society than in health care.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, health care in Canada costs over $200 billion annually. In the US the figure is approaching $3 trillion, according to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“CORAH aims to orchestrate and sustain Sauder’s considerable research and data-driven analytical approaches to improving health care processes,” says Professor Steven Shechter, Director of CORAH.

“Our research projects are trying to control costs in the health care system and ultimately improve the quality and length of life.”

A hub for ideas and collaboration

By bringing together graduate students, post-docs, visiting scholars and faculty working in this area, as well as health care practitioners, CORAH is a dynamic hub for collaboration, resources and ideas.

It’s a collegial approach that has already helped establish Sauder as a leader in research into health care decision-making in North America and worldwide.

“A number of Sauder faculty have been active in this area for some time,” says Shechter. “CORAH now provides that central physical location where people can share ideas and work on health care analytics projects.”

Translating research into practice

CORAH’s research benefits health care in a direct, tangible way, such as the chemotherapy appointment scheduling tool developed by Professor Martin Puterman.

Chemo SmartBook employs mathematical optimization techniques similar to those driving the complex schedules of airlines and manufacturing companies.

SmartBook's computer-based system automatically assigns patients to nurses, balances workloads, alerts pharmacists of daily schedules and meets patient appointment preferences.

Since its launch in 2010 by the BC Cancer Agency at its Vancouver Centre, the tool has drastically reduced the number of waitlisted patients.

“I wanted to help reduce patient stress by letting them know well in advance when to expect their chemotherapy and I knew we had the skill in operations research at Sauder to work with the BC Cancer Agency to make it happen,” says Puterman.

Informing the debate

Another benefit of CORAH’s work is to inform the debate at a policy level. An example is a breakthrough research paper by Shechter, Sauder PhD student Reza Skandari and clinical collaborator Dr. Nadia Zalunardo that was recently published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases. The paper examines the timing of care for patients suffering from chronic kidney disease.

“Our collaboration allowed us to tackle the question of when to refer a patient in an innovative way,” says Dr. Zalunardo, Clinical Assistant Professor, Vancouver General Hospital. “The results will help guide the care of patients who are candidates for arteriovenous fistula creation before dialysis begins.

“The finding that referral policies should not be applied on a ‘one size fits all’ basis is quite novel and important. This will help to reduce the chance of needless surgical procedures in older patients in particular.”

Industry collaborations like these are critical to the success of CORAH projects according to Shechter.

“We can’t do our research without having a key frontline decision maker involved,” he says. “Our research is validated and becomes more meaningful when it is conducted in close collaboration with someone who works in health care delivery.”

CORAH also maintains close ties with Sauder’s Centre for Operations Excellence (COE) - an internationally recognized operations research centre. Many of CORAH’s research activities, including the kidney disease care study, start as COE industry projects.

“Training is an important part of CORAH’s mission,” says Shechter. “By engaging graduate students and post-docs in research on analytical solutions to complex health care problems, Sauder is contributing to and leading the debate on how to improve health care.”