Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan, SDM ’12: Complex Systems for Healthcare, WiSDM, and More

Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan November 27, 2012

From military bases to Vermont farms, Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan, SDM ’12, has followed her interest in complex systems. Now she’s a fellow in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) Program, where her interest has become a passion for improving complex health care systems and for helping to build strong communities within MIT and SDM.

Southerlan came to SDM from Accenture, where she was a management consultant with the firm’s retail and health care practices. For the latter, she managed projects in health care analytics and clinical transformation.

In looking to build on her training in industrial engineering and experience in health care management consulting, Southerlan opted for SDM. She believed that SDM’s MS in engineering and management, rather than an MBA, would enable her to increase her business acumen as well as her understanding of engineering principles. SDM also offered courses to help Southerlan gain a better appreciation of how organizations function and develop a multi-disciplinary perspective on factors affecting health care over the long-term.

Southerlan is currently conducting research under faculty from the MIT Engineering Systems Division’s Sociotechnical Systems Research Center Specifically, she is applying systems thinking to the process of analyzing and mapping potential changes in the US Military Health System’s (MHS) treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By examining how PTSD is handled at different levels of the MHS, from a single unit or facility through entire service branches and military itself, she aims to map out a better understanding of how the military is currently addressing the problem, how it might improve care, and what steps it could take to achieve that.

Southerlan’s research draws on a method known as Enterprise Architecting, that was discussed in an SDM course taught by Professors Deborah Nightingale and Donna Rhodes. The approach involves comparing behavioral health care systems at the scale of a particular Marine base, with those of the Navy, and of the MHS as a whole. Southerlan also broadened the comparison to include military health care internationally.

Each scale of system is analyzed through the "elemental lenses" of strategy, infrastructure, processes, products, services, knowledge, information and organization. In theory, grasping the interrelationships and interdependencies of the elements in these systems can produce better outcomes.

In a separate project at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Boston, Southerlan examined the hospital’s use of data, from patient admissions to clinical outcome, identifying strategies for improving staff-wide access to data and better aligning decision-making with information flows.

Southerlan’s work in health care management benefits from her training in industrial engineering and her lifelong appreciation of the medical profession (she grew up in a family of health care practitioners). She also pursued a concentration in life sciences as an undergraduate at Penn State.

"I have always been passionate about improving health care," she says. Her goal is ensuring that the organizational and administrative side of health care enhances, rather than hinders, delivery of care. For instance, while she sees the potential upside of the current push toward electronic health records, "it can be frustrating and sometimes seems ad hoc. It’s a new language, which can be inefficient now, but has long-term potential," she says.

Southerlan, who holds a B.S. in industrial engineering, spent several weeks this past summer studying food production as part of a certificate program in sustainable food systems from the University of Vermont. While not directly tied to her health care management studies, the experience dovetailed with her interest in diet and exercise as preventive medicine, and added data to her expanding health care systems model.

In addition to her dedication to improving the delivery of health care, Southerlan also believes that a well-balanced life is essential to success. She has lived these words as the social chair and student life representative of her SDM ’12 cohort, as well as the COO of Women in SDM (WiSDM) and director of logistics for the MIT 2012 Career Fair (school wide).

In her social and student life roles, Southerlan has worked to increase the professional and social relationships shared by her classmates and students outside of SDM. She worked with other WiSDM leaders and SDM staff to organize and present the first WiSDM Symposium, which took place during the annual SDM conference. The women worked together to bring in three accomplished female leaders across a wider variety of industries to discuss the application of systems thinking in their organizations.

Southerlan worked with the other career fair directors to organize and facilitate the largest and most well-attended career fair in MIT’s history. While the event was school wide, Southerlan helped form a partnership between the annual career fair organizers and participants and SDM. This provided her classmates with opportunities to work side-by-side with industry representatives of their choice while also increasing SDM’s industry relationships.

Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography