Healthcare Systems Engineering
Optimizing Healthcare

Biographical Sketch of Terrill Theman, MD, FRCSC, MEng and Adjunct HSE Professor

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          I was born and raised in western Canada (Alberta), where I attended University and Medical School.   After interning in Montreal I was accepted into the Gallie Program at the University of Toronto where I learned the craft of surgery – specifically cardiovascular and thoracic surgery.

          My first position was as Assistant Professor of Surgery at Memorial University of Newfoundland.   After 5 years in St. John's I emigrated to the USA where I had the privilege of creating the open-heart surgery program at St. Luke’s hospital (Bethlehem, PA).  It was during the ensuing 28 years of surgical practice that I became interested in concepts of “process improvement” and “variance reduction”, even though I did not know these particular terms at that time. 

          It was during this time of busy clinical practice that I joined with several surgical colleagues to look into ways that we could “systematize” our practice to give our patients consistently good outcomes.  We formed a regional "quality improvement consortium" (later known at "The Delaware Valley Society of Thoracic Surgeons") and continued to work towards our goal of optimizing patient outcomes after cardiothoracic surgery.

          After my retirement from active patient care I became intrigued with the idea of returning to college to learn how Engineers go about solving complex problems.   The new Healthcare Systems Engineering Program at Lehigh University seemed to be just what I needed, and so I entered this program in 2012.

          After graduating in 2014 with a Master's degree in HSE, I was honored to be offered a faculty position at Lehigh where I could use my medical and engineering knowledge to guide students as they worked on their industry projects.


Why HSE?

          Healthcare Systems Engineering is the branch of Industrial and Systems Engineering that focuses on addressing the multifaceted problems of our healthcare system.   There are many issues that need to be addressed, such as delays in treatment, inefficient methods for delivering care, understanding why variance exists in various surgical procedures, and so forth.

          HSE graduates not only gain understanding of the US healthcare system but also learn the Engineering methods that can be applied to help solve important issues.   Acquiring these skills is important for engineers who work for healthcare institutions, but also for any professional whose work affects the healthcare system (such as doctors and nurses, those working in Hospital Administration, Pharmaceuticals, Device manufacturing, Healthcare Consulting, and so forth).


What do you see for the future of HSE?

          I foresee three trends:   one, that our graduates will begin to effect change from within the healthcare system by using critical thinking skills and applying operations research methodology to address and solve important problems in healthcare.  

          Two, that our Program will attract increasing numbers of students from diverse backgrounds who will go on to improve our healthcare system.   These students will not only be limited to pre-med students or engineering consultants, but will go on to do primary research and to work in a variety of medically-related industries.  

          The third trend I foresee is that our curriculum must rapidly adapt to the advances that are happening in healthcare in our country.   This means that our faculty and programs must remain on the leading edge of medical, social and policy innovations.


Why should Pre-Med students study HSE?

          It is my opinion that a modern engineering education helps to prepare any medical practitioner to become more effective at delivering high-quality and cost-effective patient care. 

          Engineering and Medicine both require careful problem-solving skills that are rooted in hard science and critical thinking.   Like Engineering, a good physician must have the ability to analyze, interpret and apply information.   Both disciplines require that one create and implement practical solutions to complex problems, and both fields work in multidisciplinary environments.  It is no more important in Medicine than it is in Engineering that one be a skilled communicator (oral and written), where resourcefulness and attention to detail are extremely important.

          An education that develops these qualities in our students prepares them well for life in an increasingly complex world, and for their chosen discipline of study.


What do you enjoy most about teaching at Lehigh?

           I enjoy being on the Lehigh campus every day.   It is a beautiful and peaceful place, with wonderful buildings and graceful landscaping.   Not only is the physical space lovely, I am privileged to work with an highly esteemed and talented ISE/HSE faculty who have been most welcoming and generous with their support.  My colleagues are a regular delight, providing me with intellectual challenges and opportunities to develop my skills as an educator and mentor.

          And yet, what inspires me the most is spending time with students, particularly when a breakthrough or insight is achieved.    There is a moment of elation and clarity when a difficult concept is understood, or when a vexing problem suddenly shows that it can be solved.

          Being in class when a student (or group of students) grasps an important idea, or delivers an outstanding presentation. This is tremendously satisfying.   It is during these moments that I truly receive my reward as a professor.