Anna Tenpenny admits she was “geeking.”
Walking through the brand-new Kennedy Outpatient Center for the Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, not only was she dazzled with the building itself, she also gazed with wonder upon the electronic kiosks that register patients at the center. It’s a system she and two other students pitched to Erlanger officials, suggesting they use it.
Erlanger did decide to use it, and the system is expected save the hospital about $1.05 million over five years. “I was thinking, ‘This is crazy! This is the project I was working on!’,” Tenpenny recalls.
In spring semester 2018, as a senior project in the Engineering Management Design course, she and partners Poet Jones and Tyler Pflug were tasked with crunching a mountain of data from Erlanger, comparing ways to streamline the registration process in the new outpatient center, scheduled to open the following December. The goal was shorter wait times for patients and also to save money.
“I was extremely overwhelmed in the beginning, especially since I had volunteered to analyze the data,” Jones says. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into with over 7,000 data points.”
Using information from other Erlanger outpatient centers, they “were looking at how fast people went through the system, from when they checked in to when they were seen and when they left,” says Tenpenny, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in engineering management. At the end of the semester, the trio presented their advice to hospital officials: Use electronic kiosks instead of the less-efficient method of employees handling the time-consuming paperwork.
“We decided they needed three kiosks per floor in order to provide enough of them so that people could actually use them and there wasn’t a line, but also to make sure the hospital wasn’t spending an incredible amount of money beforehand,” Tenpenny says. Erlanger officials agreed and now there are three registration kiosks on each of the center’s three floors.
Tyler Shugarts, assistant administrator at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, worked directly with the students who “were awesome” during the study. “They took such great initiative; they asked meaningful, right questions and were not afraid to admit when they needed some help. They really took the bull by the horns,” he says. “UTC as a school should be really proud.”
The students’ instructor, Wolday Abrha, assistant professor in engineering management and technology, says projects like this prove that students “are capable of solving real-world problems, not just a hypothetical classroom example.”
“At the end of the project, my expectation is students have developed the skill sets in managing projects, communication using written, oral and graphical methods, critical thinking at each stage of the project life and teamwork and interaction with multidisciplinary professionals,” Abrha says. Such skills are critical for success in future careers, he adds.
Both Jones and Tenpenny say they’re already using what they learned. “I use these skills now at my current employer by finding, analyzing and presenting data for process improvements,” says Jones, who works at Wacker Chemical Corp. as an electrical, instrumentation and controls technician and deputy supervisor. He plans to graduate in May from UTC with a degree in engineering management.
Tenpenny landed a part-time job in Erlanger’s Process Improvement department doing essentially the same thing she did in the outpatient project. Using data from the hospital, she helps develop ways to make operations run more smoothly, everything from using blood supplies to reducing the amount of time patients spend recovering after surgery. She says the kiosk project was key in getting the Erlanger job. “The project gave me a lot of background knowledge so I could really fit in to this department,” she says. “I was definitely more interested after this project in pursuing this job.”
It also aimed her into a new career path, one she wasn’t considering before the project. “I really was unsure about the medical field. I was like, ‘Wait, a hospital? I’m in the College of Engineering. How does that really connect?’ But just seeing the connection between what I’m doing in school and healthcare and helping people was a big change. I now want to do this in my future.
“Our job is not to say we can do this with less people. It is to reutilize people and make it more efficient.”