You’re sick and you’re scared. So you visit the doctor—who has 15 minutes to spare. You want more answers, but there just isn’t enough time.
Sound familiar? Health care engineer Andrea Ippolito SDM ’12, ESD ’17 thinks so, too. She uses engineering to tackle large-scale logistical problems, like making it easier for patients to secure doctor’s appointments.
“My goal is to energize the health-tech ecosystem through engineering. I want to change the way we architect our health care, and there’s a hunger for improvement,” she says.
Ippolito is an innovator who is working to improve health care through engineering, systems design, and entrepreneurship. At MIT, she’s served as a co-director of MIT Hacking Medicine, where the team has held over 20 hackathons to crack medical problems like these across the world. Her own start-up, Smart Scheduling, emerged from a Hacking Medicine event. Smart Scheduling now has paired with athenahealth to develop software that takes the guesswork out of patient scheduling. It tracks patients to remind them of appointments and predicts future scheduling behavior, maximizing a busy doctor’s time.
Today, it’s a struggle for patients and physicians alike. “The current payment delivery model for doctors is fee-for-service,” she explains. “Even though doctors are trying their hardest, volume has to be the focus in order to keep their practice up and running. It’s not patient-centric.” Hence the hurried, dreaded 15-minute appointment.
“Right now, it can be frustrating for patients to get quick access to an appointment, or often patients experience long wait times. Our goal at Smart Scheduling is to find holes in the clinician’s schedule and schedule patients close to cancellations, so that the clinician can see someone else who needs care that day,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about providing that really good same-day and next-day access that every patient wants.”
To that end, Ippolito is also exploring ways to capitalize on preventative medicine, so patients don’t need to visit the doctor so much in the first place. She’s worked closely with the U.S. military to help design a telehealth system for service members coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. The system enables homebound patients to consult with a doctor remotely. Sessions usually last five minutes. They provide reassurance to patients—and extra bandwidth for doctors.
Thanks to Ippolito’s innovative approach, she recently was named by the White House and the General Services Administration as a Presidential Innovation Fellow. This year, she’s harnessing that creativity once again, working with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. The yearlong program pairs external innovators with government agencies to spearhead special projects.
“The Presidential Innovation Fellows are trying to infuse the VA with the same energy you see outside government to fuel the development of modern, better products for veterans,” she says.
That’s where she comes in: Ippolito is developing an Innovator’s Network wherein VA employees from different disciplines and backgrounds will collaborate to solve new problems, like designing ways for wheelchair-bound patients to reach light switches.
“This challenge is just like a hackathon,” she says. “Right now the VA’s tools are all there. The plane parts are all in the hangar. It’s all about someone coming in and asking, ‘Why isn’t this possible?’”
Thanks to Ippolito’s work, it is.