Medicine and Engineering: SDM Student Applies Systems Thinking to Health Care

Sahar Hashmi

By Amy MacMillan

September 27, 2010

Sahar Hashmi, SDM ’09, is a medical doctor who came to the System Design and Management (SDM) program, which is co-sponsored by MIT Sloan and the MIT School of Engineering, to pursue her passion for research, and her ultimate goal of improving the health care system by focusing on better tools for measuring patient outcome. Sahar, who is also a PhD student in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD), in which SDM resides, attended medical school in Pakistan. After graduation, she started doing research at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She also has a sister at MIT, Nada Hashmi, an SDM alumna who is currently a PhD student at MIT Sloan. SDM is a master’s program for mid-career executives who, upon graduation, receive an SM in Engineering and Management.

Why did you decide to come to MIT?
I have a vision of combining medicine with engineering systems and management to help improve the shape of the current health care system. It is only natural for me to seek diversity in an academic research career. As a multi-lingual individual who was born and raised in various countries around the world, it is natural for me to appreciate diversity and a collaborative approach to tackling systemic problems in health care—which is what MIT provides.

What do you think of the SDM program so far?
I joined MIT as an SDM student last year to enhance my research and managerial skills. I view everything very differently now. To put it into words, ‘I see everything as a system now and aim to understand the different entities that operate in it. In order to improve any one of these entities, one must understand the whole system—not just the entity itself.’ We, as physicians, are taught to be very focused on patient care, making the best treatment of test results as our main goal. Due to this, sometimes, unintentionally we may forget to notice the surroundings of the patient, which means looking at patient care as a system…looking at all the needs of a patient, aside from just treating the disease-a more collaborative approach where technology and medicine is combined to provide the best results in a holistic way to the patient and the hospital system in general. This has benefits both for the patient along with the hospital management system as well.

What initially inspired you to become a medical doctor?
After witnessing suffering from preventable diseases in Third World countries, an urge developed in me to find a way to provide health care access to everyone and at all levels of society—not just the privileged. Having the ability to cure someone’s pain really resonates within me and I have always wanted to be that pain reliever. The joy of having the ability to save lives and cure is something indescribable. This can be accomplished by bringing improvements in the health care system which in turn can bring more efficient results in health care access and patient treatment outcomes.

What do you enjoy the most about being in the medical field and doing volunteer work?
My interest does not just rest in the world of medicine and engineering systems. I am currently involved in the community, providing free services like helping to organize educational health seminars, health screenings for the under-served population, and social bonding seminars for elderly diabetic patients. While polishing my research and computational biology skills, I have continued my interest and learning experience in voluntary health screening and educational work at the Cambridge Health Alliance for the elderly population of Cambridge. I was recognized for my work there as well, which was a gratifying experience. The joy of learning and educating the community is something that I really value and intend to continue throughout my life.

What advice do you have for women who may be considering the SDM program?
SDM is a great opportunity to reach your full potential and combine the best of all worlds—engineering, management, and systems thinking. The diversity SDM provides helps in polishing leadership skills and a better understanding in every field. You see a problem from various angles and it’s an amazing experience. You have engineers, MBAs, physicians, and financial analysts all under one roof struggling to solve a problem—and they do solve the problem very creatively. It is really and truly the whole package.

As a side hobby you also design traditional clothes and gowns for orphaned girls and women. How did you get into that? Are you still involved? How does that fulfill you?
As a side hobby, I am an amateur fashion designer and trained at a local design school in Lahore, Pakistan. I was extensively involved in volunteering at orphanages in Pakistan and working with homeless girls to get them the proper education and basic aid training. During this time, I started to help design clothes for orphan girls and the poor, under-served population. Simply said, ‘Every girl deserves to look and feel beautiful; from any background, rich or poor, and good fashion designing can make that happen.’ This was during my years as a medical student, and ever since I have not been able to continue it as often as I would like, as it took a huge amount of my time. I am glad I was able to help out at that time—it was a great experience and I truly loved helping the under-served. In particular, I attended a girl’s 16th birthday in which she wore my design and it was a surreal experience—the pride and happiness the girl showed brought tears to my eyes.

What else do you like to do in your spare time?
I love cooking and enjoy learning new recipes from the Internet and trying them out at home. I have started to learn tennis and am working on my photography skills nowadays. I also enjoy working out and would love to travel more and explore new countries and cultures.