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Good medical technology starts with patients’ needs


This post is part of the Biodesign's Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

The first step in solving a medical challenge is identifying a problem in need of a solution. This seems intuitive, but often people start from the other direction – they’ve developed a technology and go looking for some way to apply it.

Learning that workflow is one thing that brought Shashi Ranjan to the Stanford Biodesign program from Singapore. “I was making devices but didn’t see them going into people,” he told me. “I wanted my technology to go into the real world.”

As the fellows encounter patients and doctors, they are compiling a list of existing medical needs.

Ranjan, along with Harsh Sheth, recently visited the Stanford South Asian Translational Heart Initiative run by Rajesh Dash, MD, PhD, to witness first-hand cardiovascular needs encountered by South Asians in the Bay Area. (The third member of their team, Debayan Saha, was at a different clinic that day.) After observing some patients, what became clear to the two is that lifestyle changes are a major barrier to improving cardiovascular disease risk in South Asians, just like in any other population.

Some of the problems they encountered appear obvious: How do you help people get more exercise and maintain a healthy weight? Develop a device to solve that and the team would help many more people than just patients with cardiovascular disease.

The two had also observed that many people who are overweight have sleep apnea, or short pauses in breathing during sleep, which can contribute to heart disease risk. The devices that exist to help sleep apnea look like cumbersome gas masks and aren’t conducive to a restful slumber. Several patients they observed don’t use the device regularly despite knowing that it could lower their risk of having a heart attack.

After observing patients, the pair added to their growing list of 300 plus medical needs a better air mask for sleep apnea, along with simplified screening for people who are at risk of heart disease. Patients at Dash’s clinic are asked to make routine visits for specialized bloodwork and other screenings. “Can we make the tests simpler but still effective, and available at the point of care?” Sheth asked.

I asked Dash why he wanted to work with Biodesign fellows like Ranjan and Sheth – their presence in the office visit certainly made the room tight and patients perhaps a tad uncomfortable. He told me that training people to make better medical devices is critical to providing good care.

The fellows from India are particularly valuable he said. “They learn how we are approaching the problem here then help find solutions that are effective in India.”

Over the next few weeks, the team will stop visiting clinics and will begin the arduous task of narrowing down their list of more than 300 observed medical needs to the one that will become the focus of their fellowship. (Four other teams are going through a similar process, and they'll all present their prototypes at a symposium in June.)

Previously: One person’s normal = another person’s heart attack? and Biodesign program welcomes last class from India
Photo, of Shashi Ranjan and Harsh Sheth observing as Rajesh Dash, MD, meets with a patient, by Kurt Hickman

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