EDEA Teams: Interdisciplinary Innovation within Global Health

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As part of my work with the Center for Global Health this summer, I am interviewing and writing articles on different interdisciplinary graduate student teams working on global health innovation projects under the C-IDEA grant (Consortium for Innovation, Design, Evaluation and Action). Under this grant, several student teams are traveling to developing countries to do field research and test their solutions to pressing problems in hospitals. This past week I had the pleasure of sitting down with three student teams (Inspire, AdaptAir, and Caregiver) comprised of individuals with medical, engineering, design, and business backgrounds. These teams all started working on their respective projects through the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class offered through the design school at Stanford these past two quarters. All three teams are also continuing their work throughout the summer and possibly into the next year.

As for a quick summary of the projects (I will publish my actual profiles and articles on them next week):
• AdaptAir: This team is working on improving the tubing to nose seal in bubble C-PAP devices to keep consistent airflow delivery to babies in respiratory distress. Bubble CPAP, for those less familiar with the device, is a dual-purpose device that provides oxygen to babies while also giving back-pressure to keep patients’ lungs from collapsing.
• Inspire: Also working with the bubble CPAP device, this team is creating a machine that mixes oxygen with room air to cut down on costs and minimize harmful side effects of 100% oxygen delivery (100% Oxygen a. is expensive and unreliable in developing countries and b. can cause blindness and acute lung damage in infants)
• Caregiver: This team is designing an infusion pump to replace the manual drop counting done by nurses delivering intravenous medication in developing countries. With an automated system that can sense medication delivery rate and adjust that rate accordingly, nurses will be freed up to tend to other healthcare needs. The pump will also be easy to use, easy to repair, and low cost.

After interviewing all three teams, I started recognizing some common themes in all the projects. Here are a couple things I learned this week from my conversations:

The design process is really thinking big with no holds on your imagination.David Janka, recent medical school graduate and current design school fellow, described AdaptAir’s design process of brainstorming how to make a better bubble CPAP seal. The team started modeling with Velcro, earplugs, Playdoh, and other everyday objects. Intellectual brainstorming started with questions like, “How do you force things to stay inside a compartment (like keeping air from escaping the device), using prisoners within a prison as an example?” Another group, Inspire, focused on making their device child-friendly. They started making prototypes of elephants that the device could fit in, and the animal soon became their team mascot. Thinking outside the box is the starting point for these teams, and an absolutely necessary element for their projects’ growth.

There are so many knowledge gaps in the process of taking an idea from start to finish, but the learning curve is steep. All three teams expressed how difficult it is to learn all there is about their respective fields as students. One example: some people in device manufacturing spend their whole lives learning how to bring products into the market. Now, these students are trying to accomplish the same goal through learning from others and teaching themselves. The learning curve is steep, however, meaning that the rate of learning is fast. With the right mentorship and the fierce determination that these team members exhibit, goals are still met in a timely fashion.

Networking is key. For most of these teams, making contacts at partner sites is crucial. Working with experts in the fields around the world has helped the teams immensely in the design process. Gaining more mentors and collaborators also provides feedback and support for the projects.

The interdisciplinary approach from day 1 has been instrumental in shaping team cultures. I learned that there are similar interdisciplinary teams working on global health projects at other universities, but those teams do more of a handoff approach: engineering students work on the project, get feedback from medical students, and then hand off the device to business school students to handle the manufacturing and marketing. Through the EDEA class, all the students from different backgrounds have been involved with the brainstorming, designing, testing, and business planning from the very beginning. All three teams expressed their satisfaction at this approach, because each team member represents a different industry’s voice in the process. All the students are very invested in the project and can give their input throughout the evolutionary stages of the devices. Because of the set-up of the EDEA class, the projects are truly interdisciplinary from the start.

As students, we CAN make a difference on an international level. For many of the teams, the “A-ha!” moment for their projects was receiving validation that their device will address a pressing need in their partner hospitals. Kevin Chi from Caregiver explained to me that working from America, it can be easy to question himself and wonder, “Is my device really filling a need or am I convincing myself that it is?” Upon speaking to physicians, nurses, and researchers at the partner sites, though, the team members realize that yes, their devices will actually make a difference in the hospital setting and positively impact peoples’ health around the world. These confirmations that they are on the right path give the teams renewed confidence and energy to continue on the ambitious path of changing healthcare delivery, one step at a time.

Look forward to more in depth profiles of each team coming next week!

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