This Colombian Engineer Uses Logistics To Help Health Services Run Better

Photo: Professor Elena Valentina Gutiérrez, a researcher at the Grupo de Logistics and Production research group at Univalle. Credit: School of Industrial Engineering, Univalle.

This article originally appeared on the Faculty of Engineering (Universidad del Valle) website here and was reproduced with permission. It is authored by Andrew James (NCC/Univalle).

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers, health administrators and medical professionals realized that the logistics and management of the health system in Colombia were changing to provide more services outside of hospitals or clinics, according to Professor Elena Valentina Gutiérrez, a researcher at the Grupo de Logistics and Production research group at Univalle.

“In 2016 there were only 400-500 institutions in Colombia authorized by the Colombian Ministry of Health and Social Protection to provide home health care services and today, there are more than 2,000,” Gutiérrez said.

During the pandemic, it was clear that more research would be needed in the field of health systems management – for the planning of service operations and for the definition of public policies in the public and private health system.

This story is part of a series of articles showing the work of women leaders in research from the Faculty of Engineering for Engineering Week 2021, with the theme “Women in engineering: research , entrepreneurship and innovation for regional development.”

Now Gutiérrez is developing a joint work with colleagues from the Colombian Association for Operations Research (ASOCIO): David Barrera Ferro from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá and Andrés Felipe Osorio from Universidad ICESI  in Cali (Osorio is also a Univalle graduate).

Professor Gutiérrez is also part of a multidisciplinary team in a project using quantitative and qualitative methods to look at  the factors involved in ensuring that women in Colombia have better access to cytology and other medical services. 

According to statistics from the Colombian Ministry of Health, close to 1900 women a year die from cervical cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death among women ages 30 to 59.

Although 79 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 69 undergo a cytology exam, there are still barriers to access, due to cultural and structural reasons.

“In some countries, because of religious beliefs, a woman cannot go alone to a smear test and in Colombia, we have other socioeconomic and cultural factors,” Gutiérrez said, “In our country, on many occasions women cannot attend their check-ups because they are primary caregivers, and they prioritize the health and care of their family members… but cervical cancer, if not detected early, can be very serious.”

With a previous study already done in Bogotá, Professor Gutiérrez and her collaborators are in the process of studying how to improve access to the health system for women in the city of Cali in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Diego Fernando Manotas Duque, Director of the School of Industrial Engineering, within the Faculty of Engineering of the Universidad del Valle, said that the professor’s research is a key mission of the Universidad del Valle.

“Research in logistics is crucial to the school, since the academic programs are based on the idea that training in the managment of supply chains is a fundamental element in an industrial engineering education,” Manotas said.

The director explained that in general the research projects at the School focus on the best use of resources, as they seek the efficient management of physical, economic and human resources.

“In that sense, they are key to the sustainability of organizations and consequently to generate and maintain quality employment,” Professor Manotas said.

Journey in STEM

Professor Gutiérrez grew up in Cali, the daughter of a mother trained in sociology and a father trained in music.

“I started on my path in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), because of the love I always had for numbers and mathematics,” the teacher explained, adding that she has always had a passion for organizing and improving any system.

“In the process of making the decision of the professional training to undertake, I understood that industrial engineering provides training and tools for the study and improvement of complex systems and organizations, through the application of quantitative and qualitative methods,” Gutiérrez said.

Professor Gutiérrez would later become the first female graduate with a doctorate in industrial engineering in all of Southwest of Colombia. Her doctorate focused on the problems associated with the logistics of Home Health Care (HHC) and would influence her later work.

Image: Un diagrama de la logística de la salud. Credito: Gutiérrez, E. V., and Vidal, C. J. (2013). Home Health Care Logistics Management: Framework and Research Perspectives. International Journal of Industrial Engineering and Management (IJIEM), 4(3), 173–182.

Towards Equity

In most parts of the world, women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is lower than that of men.

“Obviously the conditions around gender have gained attention in recent years, especially from the academic and scientific communities, and I also believe it necessary that other characteristics such as race, socioeconomic status, nationality, religious beliefs, sexual preferences and political positions must be equally respected in our country, and in the world.  but I believe that we still have a long way to go, on those points,”said Professor Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez explained that in her field there are some specific spaces for the discussion of the roles of women in science.

“For example, from the International Federation of Operations Research Societies (IFORS), of which the Colombian Association for Operations Research (ASOCIO) is a part, has forums, seminars and conferences in which the role of women is discussed,” she said, “They also talk about how they can improve the conditions to provide more equitable work spaces, recognizing precisely the natural differences that we have between genders,” Professor Gutiérrez said.