WASHINGTON – Should a pandemic or bioterrorist attack strike, lives could depend on the efficiency of getting vaccines and medicines to the public.
A new computer modeling program developed by University of Maryland engineering professor Jeffrey Herrmann could ensure their rapid delivery.
“This software is a great example of how engineering techniques can be used to help others,” said Herrmann in a written statement. “Should mass dispensing or mass vaccination be needed, the software can help public officials adjust their plans to respond to the scenario that is happening.”
Herrmann is an expert in “queuing theory,” the discipline of using mathematical modeling to explain how waiting lines are formed and how to reduce bottlenecks.
“Queuing is something everyone deals with everyday,” said Herrmann, listing such examples as waiting in traffic or for a bank teller line and at the grocery store. “It’s a fascinating problem on many different levels.”
To make clinics more efficient, his research had to take into account short deadlines for vaccinating everyone in a county, locations and numbers of clinics and arrangement of the physical facility and staff to best complete the job.
In the creation of his software, Herrmann collaborated with health care officials throughout the country and various Maryland health officials including those from Montgomery, Wicomico and Worcester counties. Time studies were performed at small pox and anthrax bioterrorism exercises. Then the modeling program was developed in Microsoft Excel, and it now can be downloaded for free from his laboratory’s Web site.
“It’s a marriage of public health with engineering,” said Kay Aaby, program manager of Montgomery County’s Advanced Practice Center for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response. She was one of the key contributors to the software’s development.
The program is flexible and the software is easy to use. Public health officials can click onto tabs and then enter specifics such as the number of people to be vaccinated, the number of staff, the time allotted for the clinic and the actual processing time that it took for people to be seen.
Herrmann said the program avoids “mathematical jargon” and is written specifically for public health officials.
“It helps bring public health into (this) century,” said Aaby’s co-worker, Rachel Abbey, a program specialist with the center.
The researchers will collect more data this year from real flu vaccination clinics, and then it will help develop a pandemic flu clinic that can be run with the minimum possible staff if there is a shortage of health care workers.
Aaby and her co-workers held a three-hour flu clinic recently in the Dennis Avenue Health Center in Silver Spring. Initially, she said, people got through within 15 minutes, but at the peak patients waited an hour.
“We’re looking to see how to get the time down,” said Aaby, including changes in numbers of tables or spaces.
Even adding a single worker could diminish waiting times, Abbey said.
Herrmann cautions that the program, while useful, is just a tool.
“The model is not the answer,” said Herrmann. “We make certain assumptions in the model and the real world doesn’t always follow these assumptions.”
However, he said, “What we’re learning now can help them design better clinics in the future.”