The sponge or needle left inside a patient. The operation performed on the wrong limb or organ. Surgeons call them “never” events, because they should never happen, but in hectic hospitals, such incidents happen quite often. And often, they are deadly. More than 250,000 Americans die of preventable medical errors each year, making it the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a Johns Hopkins study.

The mission of one medical startup is to change that. And in order to grow its client base, the company tapped the insights of a team of M.B.A. students at the Carroll School.

Gerald Healy ’63 is a managing partner at OR Dx + Rx: Solutions for Surgical Safety. He’s also surgeon-in-chief emeritus at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat) at Harvard Medical School.

“In health care, as in other lines of work, if people don’t communicate properly, if they don’t work as a team, problems will occur,” Healy said in an initial interview last fall. Moreover, he said, a growing emphasis on quantity (of surgeries) over quality (of care) in many hospitals, compounded by piles of insurance and government red tape, can cloud the communication channels and cause fatal mistakes.

Healy co-founded OR Dx + Rx in 2016 to improve safety in the perioperative process—“the operating room and also the space around it, the pre-operative area and the recovery room,” he explained.

The startup is uncommon in its focus on safety. “Many consulting groups tell hospitals, ‘We’re about operating room improvement,’” Healy said, “but really they’re about helping you figure out how to save money, how to put more cases through the operating room in the course of a day, how to shorten turnaround time between patients.

“But patients are not Toyotas,” Healy added. “Every Toyota Camry gets the same treatment on the factory floor. Patients are not like that; they’re all different.” And each merits close and undivided attention.

Over the past three years, Healy has assembled a team of experts—“frankly, world leaders in nursing, surgery, hospital management,” he said, including the past presidents of the American College of Surgeons, the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, and the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The team will perform a deep diagnostic evaluation of a client hospital, including document reviews, site visits, and interviews with everyone from executives to janitors, before delivering their report. “And then we help them over six months to implement our recommendations.”

The group has worked with several clients already, Healy said, “but most of our referrals have been word-of-mouth.” Healy and colleagues wanted to spread the word to more hospitals as well as non-hospital surgery centers (e.g., outpatient plastic surgery clinics) and other clients, such as medical malpractice insurance companies, regulators, and ownership groups looking to acquire new hospitals.

“What we need is a marketing program,” Healy said. “We want to develop a message that’s going to resonate with the key players.”

MBA Students with Professor Jon Kerbs

From left: Christopher MacArthur, M.B.A. ’19; Rozanna Penney, M.B.A. ’20; Professor Jon Kerbs; and Caroline Crawford, M.B.A. ’20

That’s where the Carroll School came in. Healy earned his bachelor’s in biology from BC’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, and he remains an active alumnus. With his wife, he endowed the Anne and Gerald B. Healy Scholarship for Academic Excellence for the Eagles football player with the highest grade-point average. “I’m very proud of my relationship with Boston College,” he said.

So when he sought marketing expertise, Healy turned to the Carroll School’s John and Linda Powers Family Dean Andy Boynton, who put him in touch with the graduate programs, which in turn developed an experiential learning opportunity together with Jon Kerbs, a senior lecturer in the Marketing Department.

To help craft a marketing strategy for OR Dx + Rx, the graduate programs selected three part-time M.B.A. students through a competitive process: Rozanna Penney, M.B.A. ’20, director of perioperative services and chief certified registered nurse anesthetist at Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Massachusetts; Caroline Crawford, M.B.A. ’20, the assistant director of state and local research for the Carroll School’s Center for Retirement Research; and Christopher MacArthur, M.B.A. ’19, drug and drug delivery specialist at Pfizer.

In this directed practicum, as the arrangement is termed, the students earned course credit by consulting for Healy’s startup. Throughout the fall, they researched the market, studied potential competitors, and developed a strategy.

Having a real-life client made a big difference. “It wasn’t just learning in a classroom or getting through a chapter of a book,” said Penney. “Everybody was really enthusiastic about this project, and everybody brought a different skill set, which complemented the others nicely.”

“While I’ve learned about market research in class,” said Crawford, “this project required me to pick up the phone and speak to experts in the field” in order to produce a competitor analysis. She also applied what she’d learned in accounting classes to a review of income statements and balance sheets.

Penney confessed to some nervousness going into the students’ presentation in December. “How would we come across, making suggestions to these established physicians?” she recalled wondering. (Penney’s own decade-long hospital career surely helped, though. “I’ve always been concerned with patient safety in the OR,” she said.)

MBA students present their findings to the client.

The details of the marketing strategy that the students proposed must remain confidential at present. However, reached again after the meeting, Healy spoke highly of the students’ efforts. “They made very cogent recommendations,” he said. “We can and will implement a majority of their recommendations very quickly. . . . I thought they did an outstanding job.”

Kerbs concurred. “I was just so impressed,” said the lecturer, whose 30 years’ industry bona fides include work in branding, product management, sales promotion, and advertising as well as marketing strategy.

The value of such an experiential learning engagement, Kerbs said, is threefold. “First, the chance to work on your critical thinking. They were exposed to a lot of unfamiliar data, new concepts, new industry, new people. To pull all that together and make sense of it requires honing your critical thinking.”

Second, Kerbs continued, is teamwork. “Three M.B.A. students, over the course of a semester, working full time, taking different scheduled evening classes, came together and worked as a team to finish a product. Finally, “They had to advocate for their point of view,” Kerbs said. “That’s always a valuable learning experience for M.B.A. students.”

On all three points, Kerbs said, the students hit the mark. “The thinking was spot-on; they came together as a team to get this done; and they were really persuasive and clear in their communication” at the final client meeting.

“And the win-win is,” Kerbs added, “the firm got three months of really smart people thinking about their business and making recommendations that were actionable to help grow their business.”

As part-time students, the trio found the directed practicum particularly useful. Working full-time, “we aren’t able to take advantage of summer internships,” pointed out Crawford. The applied learning project with OR Dx + Rx “helped fill that gap,” she said, giving them an alternative way “to try on new roles and hone skills we are looking to develop for our long term careers.”

Best of all, the students made a positive contribution on a serious issue. “It’s useful for us as a company to have a marketing strategy,” said Healy, “but the point is that it furthers our main goal: to make surgery safer and of the highest quality for patients. So in addition to the experience gained, the students have participated in a program that has a societal benefit. And that, of course, goes along with the mission of Boston College and the Jesuit education, that of making the world a better place.”

Patrick L. Kennedy, Morrissey College ’99, is a writer in Boston and the co-author of Bricklayer Bill: The Untold Story of the Workingman’s Boston Marathon.

Photography: Lee Pellegrini