Waiting for medical treatment can be a life-or-death matter.
“Waiting times in healthcare are a significant problem that occurs across the world and often has catastrophic effects – as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Maria van Zyl, a lecturer in the School of Industrial Engineering at the North-West University (NWU).
While various terms are used for waiting times to access healthcare, such as “sojourn,” and “throughput,” Maria says there is no consensus on how these terms are defined. For example, is the time spent by a doctor waiting for a patient to arrive for an appointment regarded as waiting time?
“Ambiguous definitions of waiting time make it difficult to compare and measure the problems relating to waiting times and delays in healthcare,” she explains.
To understand why waiting time in healthcare is a confusing concept, Maria is looking at different scenarios in her studies.
She says part of her study is to propose a taxonomy/framework according to which waiting time in healthcare can be defined from an operations-research and operations-management perspective.
“Different types of delays in healthcare as defined in the taxonomy can be due to different scenarios. With this taxonomy/framework in place, the next step of my research is to solve real-life problems relating to waiting and access times in four different private hospitals in South Africa,” says Maria.
Different waiting-time problems are addressed using mathematical modelling. One such problem is to look at the turnaround time of pathology tests, taking the type of pathology tests, the location of the pathology tests and the urgency of the results into account.
“This, in turn, can provide an answer to pathology laboratories at a specific site on how best to deploy their phlebotomists (staff tasked with taking blood samples) and the best schedule to use when collecting blood samples.”
Maria is looking beyond blood tests and is hoping to make a difference throughout the sector: “An additional problem that I hope to solve is operating-room (theatre) scheduling according to the case mix of a hospital to reduce the waiting time of patients for both elective and emergency surgery. Both operations-management and operations-research techniques can be used for this.”
About the researcher
Maria van Zyl is a staff member and lecturer in the School of Industrial Engineering at the NWU. She is completing her PhD through the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Her studies require her to solve real-world problems while also making an academic contribution.
Maria van Zyl