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Biodesign students display health care innovations

Solving problems in health care requires deeply understanding the problem and the perspectives of those affected before developing solutions.

Take cataracts. Despite being highly treatable, nearly half of suffers (link to .pdf) remain undiagnosed, making cataracts the leading cause of vision loss in the US. Why? In part, because screening for cataracts requires expensive equipment and can only be performed by a physician in the office.

Another example is post-stroke disability. In the aftermath of a stroke, many patients experience diminished hand/wrist function. This fine motor impairment can compromise independence by making it difficult or impossible to manipulate keys, open containers or perform other essential activities. Existing therapies are either expensive or ineffective, leaving many patients in need of in-home assistance, or struggling to function using only their “good side.”

These are just some of the problems that undergraduate and graduate students in Stanford Biodesign courses are working to address through health-technology innovation. Recently, ten teams of students presented their identified health care needs and solutions-in-progress in the first ever Biodesign Health Technology Showcase.

“The goal of the showcase was to convene the community of health-technology innovators at Stanford, and give students the chance to network with faculty, industry mentors, and others passionate about improving health care,” said event organizer Richard Fan, PhD, a biomedical engineer in the department of urology who teaches the undergraduate class "Biodesign Fundamentals" with co-instructor and pediatric surgeon James Wall, MD.

One team called Theia Medical, comprised of six graduate students in medicine, business, and engineering, is working on a way to detect visually significant cataracts that increases referrals to ophthalmologists.

“Their solution uses an infrared camera on the front end, and artificial intelligence on the back end to screen patients quickly, cost-effectively, and without a doctor present,” Fan said. “By making this device easily accessible, along the lines of blood pressure monitors in grocery stores, they will get patients through the diagnostic funnel more quickly so that they can have their cataracts treated.” Team members said they plan to target professional truck drivers initially, since drivers with cataracts are 2.5 times more likely to be in a car accident

Another team, XO Health, is working on an affordable, assistive glove that makes it easier for patients with fine motor impairment in their hand or hands to regain their independence after a stroke. The glove senses and enhances motion using motorized artificial tendons. It also delivers passive therapy to prevent hand contracture and loss of muscle tone and employs a software algorithm that reduces the amount of assistance provided as the patient regains strength and capability.

“This hand/wrist exoskeleton takes the burden off occupational and physical therapy providers by helping patients use their affected hand, and may even improve function over time,” Fan said.

Other teams presented potential solutions for problems in hearing loss, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, scoliosis, prosthetic fit, nutrition, reproductive health management, arterial closure and osteoarthritis. All of the projects have qualified for “seed” funding that will allow the teams to continue to advance their projects beyond the academic term in which they were initiated.

“While these innovations are exciting and promising, we think the real benefit is the experiential learning acquired from going through a project-based class,” said Biodesign founder and director Paul Yock, MD. “These students are learning, in a very hands-on way, what it takes to identify and address unmet health needs and bring solutions to patients.”

Previously: Graduating Stanford Biodesign fellows offer hard-won lessons in innovation,  and Stanford biodesign: A focus on saving lives without increasing costs
Photo by Stacey Paris McCutcheon

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