Bringing Computational Thinking to Meharry

Bassam Zahid, MSII

In the history of electronic hardware, there is a generally accepted term called Moore’s Law that notes that the number of transistors in devices tends to double about every two years. This type of exponential growth is the reason why your cell phone has more processing power than the Apollo space missions that NASA sent to the moon! Nowhere is this law more apparent than in the medical industry, where technological advances has put our cell phones on the cusp of being accepted medical devices.

If Meharrians are to ensure successful careers amidst the rapid and incessant evolution of healthcare, the practice of computational thinking should be internalized and implemented. It is this thought process that will allow us to solve problems with innovative solutions and design efficient healthcare systems.  We will be able to understand and respond to the needs of our patients better than ever before and, as a result, deliver exponential growth to Meharry in the 21st century.

The term “computational thinking” was coined by Jeannette M. Wing in 2006, who was then a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University (and now Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Research).  She explained it as a thought process used by computer scientists. In any field using humans, computers or a combination of both, problems can be solved with this methodology. Do you have an idea for the next great start up? Do you want to improve the organizational workflow in your department? Computational thinking can help you organize your ideas and prepare them for execution. If you are a scientist, this should come naturally because of the similarity between computational thinking and the scientific method.

In essence, computational thinking can be boiled down to a four-step process: decomposition, pattern-recognition, abstraction, and algorithmic design. Decomposition refers to breaking down a problem into constituent parts and then continuing the process until one is working to solve the simplest problems. Eventually the many different solutions can be brought together to solve bigger problems. Pattern-recognition is looking for the trends, regularities, and patterns in the parts at different levels of decomposition. Abstraction is the ability to generalize a pattern through a rule, equation, or law. Finally algorithm design is the development of step-by-step instructions to solving this or similar problems.

Let’s hammer this idea home with an example. So let’s say we wanted to start by addressing the decreasing number of patients at Nashville General Hospital. Starting with decomposition, we can start to break down all of the systematic inefficiencies to smaller parts. One that comes to mind is the outdated website, which is a marketing and customer service nightmare. The next question is to ask how do we bring a modern and organized interface in order to attract first-time visitors. We can continue to break this problem down to smaller parts as far as we want to go. How should each department be represented? What information should be available for each physician? Some of the most successful companies in the world will become so engrossed in the process that they will have meetings to discuss seemingly inane details like what colors, fonts, and sizes would best represent the organization to the world. But they are successful because of the attention to detail.

The next step is to start searching for patterns or trends in the different parts of the decomposition. One place we can start is by looking at the different websites of hospitals in the area: Vanderbilt Medical Center, TriStar Centennial, and St. Thomas. What are the similarities and differences between these websites? The underlying goal is to think about what are the best features our competitors have to offer. Which websites make the most effective use of pictures? Are the websites responsive, that is, does it resize to fit the screen of a mobile device? Is a search bar for easy navigation easily accessible? How much information or lack thereof exists under each department listing? One of the hardest parts of a job interview for some people is selling their strong points. The website of Nashville General Hospital is an interview of sorts. Is it doing everything it can to win over the interviewer?

Once we have discerned the overarching patterns, we can start to abstract general rules for our programmers to follow. For example, every page on the website should be responsive. The website should also have easy navigation and an abundance of pictures of smiling patients and medical staff. The most common health concerns of Nashville General patients, like cardiovascular disease and obstetrics, should perhaps be accessible with one click from the home page. Another general rule can be that every department should have a complete list of physician names and pictures. Patients want to see who is going to take care of them. There is already enough mystery in medicine.

The solution can finally be implemented in algorithm design. While computer programmers might develop an actual algorithm in code, nonprogrammers can easily participate in the process by writing step by step instructions of what they expect to see in various iterations of the website. These instructions can be written or drawn so that the programmer understands the expectations clearly. The advantage of this type of process is that it saves time and money. The website development team does not have to be creative. They just need to follow instructions written by the nonprogrammers.

The most beautiful aspect of computational thinking is how easily it can be applied to a variety of disciplines. These days, everyone has a million-dollar idea. Computational thinking is just one way to move in productive steps from abstract concept to concrete reality.  You do not have to be a computer programmer to use it. But it will allow you to communicate your ideas effectively to one. And if we start embracing 21st century technological principles here at Meharry, then who knows? Perhaps the next great app or telemedicine service for underserved medicine will be born on a small campus just north of Charlotte Ave. It could even be your idea.


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