Mining for organs

Watson SSIE researchers use data analysis to help boost organ donor numbers


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Every 18 hours, on average, someone in New York state dies while waiting for an organ transplant. Every 150 minutes, another New Yorker is added to the organ transplant waiting list. Yet only 24 percent of New Yorkers age 18 and over have enrolled in the New York State Donate Life Registry as organ, tissue and eye donors, significantly less than the national average of 47 percent.

Helen Irving is president and CEO of LiveOnNY, formerly the New York Organ Donor Network. LiveOnNY, part of a national network of organ procurement organizations and one of four in New York state, serves more than 13 million people in the New York metropolitan area and currently has more than 9,000 people on its waiting lists for organ transplants: more than 7,300 waiting for kidneys, 1,160 for livers and 327 for hearts. Many others need a pancreas, lung or intestine.

Irving took over leadership of LiveOnNY in 2011. She had worked there years ago but moved around in her career, always in organ donation and transplantation, and most recently at Mount Sinai Medical Center as vice president for operations. It was there she first saw the benefits of working with the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science to solve problems and improve processes by gathering and analyzing data.

“It was really like coming home and back to something where I can look at the organization differently,” she says. “I knew I needed better operational support through improved data analytics.”

A Partnership is Formed

Enter the Watson School’s Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering (SSIE), and a partnership was established. Since then, Sang Won Yoon, assistant professor of SSIE, and his doctoral student, Benjamin Schleich, have worked on a number of projects to help LiveOnNY improve systems and efficiency in several areas.

“They want to have a collaborative research relationship with us,” Yoon says. “Every year, we work on different projects or topics.”

“We started off with operational issues that were urgent and needed to be resolved, such as where we were short of staff and what coverage we needed in a geographic area,” Irving says. “Knowing we need a two- or three-hour response time to every hospital for every phone call, how many people should we hire in the city and on Long Island?

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“We looked at that and learned how many people we need in each area — that we need three teams, not four — and response times should be x, y, z, and we implemented that plan,” she says.

After studying their staffing model, recommendations were made and then it was on to the next project — their call center. “It’s kind of a chain reaction,” Yoon says. “We study something and get results, and it leads to the next study and other questions. Then we drill down more to find answers to the questions.

“We study something and get results, and it leads to the next study and other questions. Then we drill down more to find answers to the questions.”
—Sang Won Yoon

“New York state’s donor registry is low compared to other states,” Yoon says, so for one study, they looked at different populations. “New York has a lot of diversity and immigrants. We drilled down into native countries, religion and culture, and compared them to other organizations to help figure out how to make changes.”

For example, analysis showed that the Asian population in New York City tends not to donate, but the Asian population in Los Angeles does. The data revealed that the Los Angeles Asian population is mainly Filipino and Korean, whereas New York City has a higher Chinese-Asian population. These results led to extensive studies and analytics on several ethnic and religious backgrounds as a big-data type of study.

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Changing lives every day

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Benjamin Schleich, a PhD candidate in systems science and industrial engineering, has worked onsite at LiveOnNY since June 2012. He uses data analysis to optimize the organ procurement organization’s efficiency and performance, working closely with Binghamton’s Sang Won Yoon.

Schleich is the point person on-site at LiveOnNY, collecting and analyzing data for projects. “The most recent and exciting project was the operationalization of a new face-transplant program with NYU,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect or what to do, so I mapped out how to align our process with their process so both parties can better understand how to proceed. We have a blueprint to follow.”

Another project Schleich worked on was after-care and how LiveOnNY follows up with and thanks the families of deceased donors after organ recovery takes place. “It’s not only family support for those who lost their loved ones. Sometimes we also connect donor families who have had the same experience so they can share and support each other. On some occasions we connect the recipient with the donor family.

“My process was to ensure the thank-you pieces were sent in a timely fashion to help families in their grievance process, and we had great success in changing that model,” he says.

Schleich was recently hired by LiveOnNY as an operations and systems analyst and will continue to work on his PhD. Although he never saw himself working in the healthcare field until this experience, he sees he is helping LiveOnNY save lives. “My opinion has changed 180 degrees, and now I’m saying I don’t want to do anything else.”

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“As a new CEO trying to unravel an organization to put it in a better place, what better asset can you have?” Irving says.

She adds, “Our ultimate goal is to have an employment plan — to provide employment opportunities for people with the goal that they stay with us for a year or two, then move on in their careers while we’re always in a position to give the next student a job.” ■