Student Uses Research Grant to Improve East Knox Clinic
A senior in the Haslam College of Business, Varun Rangnekar has volunteered at the East Knox Free Medical Clinic since his first year at UT. His work there has included everything from cleaning floors to organizing materials, filing charts, and checking in patients—and he has done more than that.
“Varun has brought along with him some amazing, highly motivated, highly caring, intelligent friends,” said Janet Purkey, co-founder of the clinic. “Wherever Varun goes, good things follow.”
Beginning in spring semester, he elevated his volunteerism in a profound way. Rangnekar is majoring in business analytics and pre-dentistry through UT’s Haslam Scholars Program, which awards each of its scholars a $5,000 grant for co-curricular travel or research. Rangnekar used his award to buy computers for the clinic and is training others to use free open-source electronic medical records software to schedule patient visits, track inventory, coordinate interaction with the lab, and perform other tasks.
Rangnekar explained that when he started volunteering, there was a complicated check-in system. He thought relying on paper files slowed the clinic’s processes. According to Dorothy Davison, the clinic coordinator, the clinic still uses paper patient records, but Rangnekar’s system has expedited registration and movement through the clinic.
“Now we know whether they are an existing patient and when they were last here, and then we can pull their chart and have their demographics,” Davison explained. “It’s made it much faster.”
The computers have also enabled the clinic to quickly retrieve lab results over the internet, cutting a task that once could take hours down to minutes. Yet Rangnekar’s contributions go deeper than donating equipment and training others. For his Haslam Scholars research project, he is applying his business analytics and statistics training to gather data on the clinic’s processes and gauge ways to streamline its workflows.
“When I first came in, I was just a basic volunteer, but I started to see ways the processes could be improved,” Rangnekar said. “At first, I just wanted to reduce patient wait times. But these computers allow us to do more, like collect data on how many medications patients have so when they need to refill them we don’t run out.”
Davison said Rangnekar used data analysis to identify the clinic’s peak busy times so they can call for volunteers based on anticipated patient volume. Purkey, who is also a physician with UT Medical Center, said, “Varun has already improved the efficiency of the clinic.”
“As we collect this data,” Rangnekar said, “we will start seeing more trends, allowing the clinic to adapt to them and better meet the patients’ needs.”
Rangnekar hopes his analysis of the new technology’s impact will offer other volunteer clinics a path to improving patient care without substantial financial outlays or steep learning curves.
“For small grassroots clinics that don’t have a lot of funding, my goal is to show that making the investment early to purchase computers will definitely result in future gains,” Rangnekar explained. “Those small pieces of technology can have a huge impact.”
Bogdan Bichescu, a business analytics and statistics professor and Rangnekar’s project advisor, agrees that the project could encourage smaller health care operations to use open-source software to streamline their processes—something that large health care systems spend millions of dollars to do. He also praised his student for putting his research funding toward the community’s benefit.
“Varun is using the hardware and free software to standardize procedures, document processes, build workflows, and then digitize the entire process,” he said. “His research can serve as an example to other clinics wondering, ‘How can we do this?’ Varun is showing how they can.” – Scott McNutt