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Stanford University School of Medicine

Stanford Biodesign focuses on innovation in aging

fellows-in-white-coatsBy 2050, nearly one-quarter (link to .pdf) of the world's population will be over 60 years of age, straining health-care resources. To address this challenge, the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign will focus on aging and longevity in 2016-17.

Biodesign trains aspiring innovators to identify unmet health needs, invent cost-effective medical devices to address those needs, and prepare to bring those products to the market. Each year, the center selects 12 innovation fellows, generally physicians and post-graduate engineers, to work in multidisciplinary teams to develop technologies in a select clinical area.

Early in the innovation process, the fellows spend four weeks immersed in a health-care delivery environment as observers. Traditionally, immersion takes place in the hospital. But as the cost of health care continues to climb, caregivers, patients, and insurance companies all have an interest in keeping elderly patients out of the hospital. Accordingly, this year's fellows also spent time in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and the residences of people receiving home care.

Interestingly, the fellows found that the non-hospital settings were most valuable in terms of deeply understanding the patients they hope to serve. They were also the most uncomfortable. Here's innovation fellow Eric Kramer, PhD:

The home care visits changed the perspective from a clinical setting where the patient is vulnerable, to one where we were the ones who felt out-of-place. But I got the most information from the home care visits for that reason. The patients weren't sitting in a medical office with a list of questions for the doctor, they were just going about their lives and letting us see what that looked like.

One of Kramer's teammates, Vivian de Ruijter, MD, added:

Normally patients are dressed when they come into the clinics, and here we saw what was involved in washing and dressing and feeding them, and suddenly you see the whole picture of how completely dependent on care these people are. And it is very clear that an electric wheelchair is not going to solve that.

The fellows encountered other challenges also. One was the stoic nature of some of the patients, which proved an unexpected barrier to uncovering needs. Observed Kramer, "Even the people who clearly needed more help were not always forthcoming. They didn't want to be seen as complaining -- they wanted to keep the conversation upbeat."

"When we were able to really talk to the patients, their personal stories made it easier to understand how they were feeling. That helped us begin to learn about what was, and wasn't working for them, and what could work better," said fellow Leor Perl, MD.

Next, the fellows will assess which of the many aging-related needs they uncovered hold the most potential for improving how the elderly are diagnosed and cared for, and begin to invent solutions.

Previously: Stanford biodesign: A focus on saving lives without increasing costsBiodesign trip highlights an innovative approach to Japan's aging crisis and Biodesign at Stanford: A whopping success
Photo courtesy of Stacey Paris McCutcheon

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