Professor Richard Larson: Systems Thinking for Healthcare and Education

Richard Larson By Eric Smalley
August 23, 2011

More than 25 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product is generated by a pair of troubled sectors of society that are also complex systems: healthcare and education. Engineering Systems Division Professor Richard Larson has spent the bulk of his lengthy MIT career studying both.

Larson will bring his insights and perspective to the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges in October with a presentation: "Samples of Systems Research in Healthcare and Education."

Healthcare and education are challenging because each is a highly nonlinear, probabilistic set of feedback loops and delays, Larson said. Anyone who claims that simply changing a given policy or altering a given equation will solve a problem in healthcare or education is mistaken, he said.

Larson observed that even when a change has initial positive results, it can produce long-term negative consequences that leave the system worse off than before. "There are no silver bullets," he said.

Larson brings an operations research approach — analyzing how organizations make decisions — to the study of large public and private sector services systems. He is founding director of MIT’s Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals (CESF). "I’m an MIT lifer," said Larson. "I started at MIT 50 years ago as a freshman and have yet to leave."

Larson and his MIT colleagues are collaborating with the Harvard School of Public Health to study low-probability events that have potentially disastrous public health consequences.

While studying pandemic influenza they found that the number of people a newly sick person infects before going to bed is a product of human behavior rather than a property of the virus, said Larson. "It’s linearly dependent on the number of face-to-face contacts you have every day and on hygienic behavior: how often you wash your hands with soap and water, whether you sneeze into your elbow or into the air," he said.

They’re now conducting similar studies designed to uncover vulnerabilities in public water supplies and food supply chains.

A systems approach makes it easier to avoid reacting to crises, said Larson. "Our focus is keeping people healthy, rather than treating them when they’re sick."

Education is an even bigger challenge, said Larson. Teachers still prepare for class using a labor-intensive craft industry model, like shoemakers in 1830. "It’s not the fault of teachers; they have been put into a system that was designed this way."

At the same time "we have a one-size-fits-all" approach, so students go all at the same speed, said Larson. We need different speeds for the students and more support for teachers, he said.

Larson is leading three research projects in education:

  • Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies (BLOSSOMS), a repository of freely available interactive videos for high school math and science classes
  • A collaboration with Ohio State University aimed at increasing participation from underserved, underrepresented populations in the life sciences at the doctoral and postdoctoral level
  • Guided Learning Pathways, a project that involves building learning software for K through 12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students

Larson concluded by referring to Einstein’s famous quote: "Keep it simple, but not too simple!" He explained, "in education and healthcare, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture, and not get distracted by numerous details. It’s the overall structure of these systems that drives their long-term performance. Simple idea to consider, but complex to implement!"

Richard Larson