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Student pioneers revived dual-degree program

A man stands next to a long bookshelf filled with books.

IMSE graduate student Johnny Tucker is one of the first students to undertake the dual-degree program that earns students a master’s degree in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in health administration.

Johnny Tucker didn’t intend to be a trailblazer. But his interest in improving health care led him to become the very first student in the dual master of health administration (MHA) and master of science in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering (IMSE).

Tucker received his bachelor of science in IMSE from the MU College of Engineering in December 2012. In the three and a half years of his undergraduate career, he did research in health care systems.

“Originally, I wanted to go into health care,” Tucker said. “For me, it’s just a knack. I’m comfortable in the health care setting. The question is, ‘How can I improve the efficiency so people actually like the care they’re receiving?’”

Since he’s the first to navigate this dual program, Tucker said he’s bridging the gap between the engineering and medical aspects.

“It’s challenging because on both sides, systems engineering and health care, aren’t completely aware of what benefits both can bring to each other,” Tucker said.  “I feel like I’m a stepping stone to put this in place so more people will get interested.”

One research project that impacted Tucker and showed him IMSE could be influential in a health care context related to electronic health records. He worked on a collaborative project funded in part by Mizzou Advantage to improve the accessibility and usefulness of patients’ electronic records.

“The concept is ‘too many clicks,’” Tucker said, describing the current problems with such records. “There’s so much information that doctors might miss something important and not give the right kind of care.”

The overload of information and difficulty of locating important indicators could be alleviated by better organization and presentation of health records in an electronic format. With that goal in mind, Tucker and the other researchers working on the project identified key display needs for electronic health records, then designed and administered an in-depth survey about a working model to three groups of stakeholders — physicians, acute patients and chronic patients.

“That was a good project for me because it made me realize the need for research and electronic records,” Tucker said. “We’re actually doing hands-on, groundbreaking research and working toward what people really want in health care.”

In addition to having worked on research projects during his undergraduate career, Tucker also started to take a few graduate-level engineering courses in the semester before he graduated.

“That was good to give me a taste of what it was going to be like,” Tucker said.

Even though he’ll be taking more hours than most graduate students, Tucker said he isn’t too worried about it.

“I have to take more than what is recommended, but it’s knowledge and coursework I’m actually wanting to learn and am really interested in,” Tucker said. “That makes a huge difference.”

He’s also planning to begin work on his thesis early, so he won’t have to cram it all in. Tucker said he’s probably going to do some research related to “alarm fatigue” in a health care setting for that requirement.

“You get so many alarms it just becomes part of the background, and you’re at risk of missing alarms,” Tucker said, explaining the phenomenon. “It’s one of the most dangerous things.”

Tucker said he is most interested in health care’s human factors. His first research project as a freshman in the Discovery Fellows program, dealt with nurses’ schedules and fatigue.

Currently, he’s working with a team headed by Greg Alexander, an associate professor at the Sinclair School of Nursing. His piece of the project deals with assessing the usability of and improving the tablet devices nurses are using to interact with and help care for residents. It’s in early stages yet, but Tucker hopes to make the tablets more intuitive to use.

Tucker said his background in engineering gives him a different perspective from most other MHA students he’d encountered.

“As an engineer I have a different skill set to draw on — a more analytic perspective with more structured models,” Tucker said.

That’s why, he said, it’s important for more industrial and systems engineers to pursue careers in the field of health care.

“It’s an extremely crucial field,” Tucker said. “There need to be some fixes because we need it to be more affordable, and that’s really what industrial engineers do — find ways to improve efficiency and cut costs.”