This is part of an ongoing research profile series profiling University professors in multiple disciplines.

Unlike many University of Michigan faculty members who tend to focus on one discipline, Jim Bagian, the current director of the University of Michigan Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety, has not only worked in the engineering field, but in many medicinal fields and in outer space as well.

Bagian has not stuck to any one field throughout his extensive career, instead finding ways to connect his multi-faceted interests to engineering at places such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He served as the first chief patient safety officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the founding director of the VA National Center for Patient Safety, and was an astronaut at NASA.

Now at the University, Bagian primarily focuses on his work with the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety, a center dedicated to improving the safety and quality of patient care through numerous multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts. The center often works in conjuncture with the University’s College of Engineering and Medical School, and Bagian said he uses all his diverse experiences to better patient care quality.

Bagian graduated from Drexel University in 1973 and later attended Thomas Jefferson University for his M.D. Throughout and following his life in academia, Bagian switched interests from space to engineering to medicine. During his career he has developed a national program geared toward protecting patients from hospital-based harm, a program now initiated at every VA hospital nationwide. He also spent 15 years at NASA — during which he flew on two Space Shuttles and was involved in the investigations of both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Bagian additionally flew planes at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Md. He retired recently from the military reserve following a 22-year tenure.

“All of the things I had done, I don’t think I could have laid out a better group of experiences to get there,” Bagian said. “Only I did it because I had a passion to do those things — I didn’t do it because I was saying ‘this will qualify me to do patient safety.’ ”

Bagian recalled his many experiences meeting administrators, corporate professionals and politicians, all of which he said shaped the appreciation he has for his unique opportunities as a researcher. In particular, Bagian mentioned talking with former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in the Oval Office.

“Those kinds of experiences, I think, were very valuable, because it lets you see these people are real people, and I think it helps you understand how to communicate better,” Bagian said. “You have a unique privilege that you see people at their best and often at their worst and you see the humanity of people and what they care about.”

CHEPS became Bagian’s focus, he said, due to its social relevance and status as a constantly altering field. The center incorporates the input of all students, College of Engineering and School of Public Health faculty, representatives from the health care perspective, and, occasionally, patients. It also aims to take a multidisciplinary systems engineering approach in providing proactive optimization of health care.

“The things you hear about in health care with transparency, I think we should be very open about problems that occur, one, so patients understand there’s risk to everything,” Bagian said. “And also, if we have a problem, we should tell them what it is so (we all) can learn.”

He stressed the importance of acknowledging mistakes and acting to prevent issues with the quality of care early on.

“If we don’t talk about it openly, it’s hard to fix problems,” Bagian said, highlighting the need to ask questions to prevent issues, rather than simply repair problems. “How do you break down those barriers? How do you communicate? How do you look at real causes?”  

William Pozehl, research area specialist at CHEPS, said he appreciates the impact the center creates. 

“One of the primary motivators for me to stay here at the University of Michigan is that I’m from Michigan and my family is here,” Pozehl said, “As my (family) start to need more and more health care services, it was important to me that I have an impact locally.”

Pozehl also noted he has participated in significant collaboration with other disciplines at the University since starting at the center in 2012.

“We’re bridging all sorts of different communities at the University,” Pozehl said, highlighting the importance of these collaborative efforts in translating research into actual dissemination in the medical and engineering fields.

Nursing senior Alex Fauer, who will be entering the graduate program in the Nursing School, also works with Bagian and other mentors from CHEPS. Fauer said his interests combine clinical experience with patient care, specifically in regard to evaluating the implementation of a health-based information technology tool for pediatric bone marrow transplant patients. This is one of multiple projects Bagian has overseen.

Fauer stressed what he said he thought was the significance of Bagian’s efforts — and those of the University — to combine patient care and student education in a way that is beneficial for both.

“The institution gets to support students while, at the same time, they are trying to improve quality processes for the patients,” Fauer said.

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