Simulation Explained

Simulating better outcomes for healthcare providers

Tom Stephenson

 /   Oct 28, 2022

Healthcare across the world is in crisis. The covid pandemic has caused a massive backlog in many countries and with medical staff in short supply, hospitals are struggling to cope.

How can a patient’s journey within a hospital be handled more smoothly? It’s something that involves many factors: bed management, staffing levels, shift patterns, interaction between departments, equipment supply, patient flow and aftercare. It’s therefore essential that resources are optimized to the maximum extent.

While many medical establishments are forced to deal with strained resources on a daily basis, it’s not always clear that small alterations to processes can actually make a massive difference to patients’ welfare. The big question though, is what changes to make? 

Healthcare is complicated, with a lot of moving parts. Adding more staff might feel like an obvious solution at first, but it is not always possible, or it can take a long time to implement. More importantly, it may not even be the most effective change to make. 

To understand what the most effective change to make for a given system actually is, first you need to understand the full system and learn how decisions to alter one aspect or another will impact on the rest of the system. 

In healthcare, where patient wellbeing relies upon the correct decisions being made, de-risking this decision making process is critical. Thankfully, there are a few tried and tested approaches here to help.

Organizations are used to examining how processes are deployed. There’s been much interest in value stream mapping (VSM), a methodology that dissects business processes in some detail – it can show where the various barriers and pain points are, helping healthcare managers to look at ways in which patient care can be improved.

What if we could take that a step further and see exactly how changes in a system will play out, but without the cost and risks involved in real world testing? And what if we didn’t have to wait weeks or even months to see the results? In healthcare, is there even this time available to wait? Changes can often take three to six months before there is enough insight available to see if they are having the desired effect. Do we have time to implement a wrong idea?

Fast forwarding to the correct idea can in fact be achieved, and this is done by taking value stream mapping, and adding simulation into the mix. In this way, decisions can be made in hours, if not minutes.

VSM and the two maps

There are a complex number of relationships within hospitals and a whole array of different processes, any one of which has the potential to disrupt patient care. VSM is here to help expose those issues, first by displaying how the current process behaves, and then mapping a new version that, within the given parameters, demonstrates the operational improvements that can be achieved. By comparing the two maps and identifying where these improvements are, it provides sight of new ways to enhance processes that may not have been found otherwise. This can be especially valuable in healthcare settings.

And staff members should be a vital part of this planning. It’s important to gather feedback from the personnel on the ground. They may well be able to identify where things can be improved and VSM is a great tool for engaging the people that know how the processes operate in the real world. More often than not, it will be them that surface ideas for improvements based on their experiences. 

But VSM is only part of the story. It provides a picture of what’s happening now but that second part – getting to the ideal future map – is the real challenge. And this is where simulation steps in, providing a way to get a rapid assessment of what’s possible.

The rise of simulation

This is not a new technique. Simulation has been commonplace in manufacturing for a long time. It provides organizations with real insights as to how all processes can be streamlined or transformed: the principle is the same whether you’re talking about factories or hospitals. At its heart, you’re looking at how departments work together, how operations can be improved and where there are any stumbling blocks.

There’s one crucial difference. Things are much more variable in healthcare – from process to process, patient to patient – whereas manufacturing processes can be more clearly defined and then adhered to. For example, a hospital staff resourcing plan can quickly become redundant with emergency patient arrivals, as staff need to be moved to the front line and away from their planned deployment. Beyond that, capacity can be further impacted by knock-on effects from other parts of the system, such as pressures that testing labs and pharmacies are under. Finding the most effective way to work with what’s available to produce the best outcomes is where simulation comes into play.

Hospitals and other healthcare organizations are going to be living with the after effects of the pandemic and the subsequent backlog for some time. But it’s clear that there are process improvement measures that can be taken. A close look at all processes can identify the issues and a simulation of the changes that can be made will give a clearer idea of what will work and what won’t.  

Patient care should always be paramount and any changes that can help them through their hospital journey will be very welcome.

Find out more about Simul8 for healthcare process improvement

Read about how simulation is used by healthcare organizations, read more case studies and access a range of learning resources.

About the author

Tom Stephenson

Tom is Director of Services and Strategic Partnerships at Simul8 and has worked on 100 simulation projects across multiple industries worldwide, for over 10 years.