Software Engineering in Health Systems Workshop 2016 – Where Engineering is Not Enough

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Software Engineering in Health Systems (SEHS) Workshop in Austin Texas. Through a series presentations, panels, and group discussions on a range of health care systems topics two main themes seemed to arose:

  1. Health care is an information intensive domain in which contemporary software engineering techniques are ill-equipped to operate. Systems engineering techniques seem to handle the problems more easily (though significant work is required).

  2. Though health care professionals and engineers seem to collaborate in these environments, they each fail to fully grasp the perspective of the other; this results in “half-way” solutions which, address an immediate need but are brittle and ultimately result in system instability.

The good news, in my opinion, is that the solutions to these problems do not require tremendous innovation in science or engineering. Instead, they require the correct allocation of human resources to the right problems.

In fact, allocation of resources (including humans) is one of the three main views (others are static and dynamic structures) from which you can consider the architecture of a software system; these problems are architectural in nature.

I think, the solution to (1) is to bring software engineers to tables in which systems decisions are made. Kevin Sullivan made this point beautifully in one of the workshop discussions. He indicated that software engineers are trained to think about systems issues already; if they can be part of the discussion about the socio-technical systems in health care then we will begin to see progress.

(2) is a matter of education; interestingly though, I think, the problem cannot be addressed by another classroom course in a standard undergraduate education. In my experience, the knowledge required to understand the complexity of the operations being carried out in both health care and software engineering requires a more tacit type of knowledge one can only acquire by activity being part of the environment. Joachim Reiss, VP of R&D at Siemens Health Care, made this point exquisitely clear in his keynote presentation: we need to get engineers into hospitals and health care providers into design labs.

Of course, neither of these problems are trivial, they involve complex social and political structures that make change, especially social change, tremendously difficult. This is simultaneously a great and maddening realization. It is nice to know that we are very capable effecting massive change in health care systems through social change, however it is clear from history (and recent events) that social change can be extremely difficult to enact on a large scale. Sadly, as much as I wish we could, we cannot rely strictly on engineering to get solve this problem for us.