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Design assistance for heart patients

20 March 2019
New designs rethink the patient experience
University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning collaborates with Monash University on a long-term medical device project to redesign patient experience for patients with cardiovascular disease.

Head of Design Innovation at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, Associate Professor Cara Wrigley , has been working alongside biomedical engineers and clinicians to help redesign the patient experience producing a better quality of life for patients at home.

The health and medicine related project aims to improve the quality of life for patients living with cardiovascular disease, in particular those who have an implanted Ventricular Assistive Device (VAD). A VAD is an implanted artificial heart pump which keeps the heart beating while patients with severe heart failure await a heart transplant.

“We’ve been collaborating with biomedical engineer, Dr Shaun Gregory, at Monash University to redesign patient experience. There are not enough heart donors in Australia (or globally) so this device is a bridge to transplant that extends life, until a donor is found,” Wrigley explains.

“For the last thirty years the focus has been on VAD biomedical engineering - making sure these devices are efficient and effective. Patient quality of life has been lacking, and patients carry around a large battery pack that is attached to them at all times.” explains Associate Professor Wrigley.

“This causes great physical strain and emotional anguish as patients are often afraid to leave the safety of their homes. They fear their VAD bags will get stolen from their shoulder. To a thief the bags are not seen as a lifesaving device but a camera bag or fashion accessory.”

Associate Professor Wrigley’s team has also been addressing issues such as waterproofing, so a patient can shower without covering their VAD bag with plastic.

There are a lot of usability issues like this that engineers haven’t considered that can help improve life after surgery. Designers are well placed to get involved at this point - putting the patient first is what we are challenging engineers on.
Associate Professor Cara Wrigley

The team is developing two outcomes to improve the patient experience, including a new wearable device and digital channel for both patients and carers to stay better connected and informed. Training of clinicians is another focus area, with research finding the VAD coordinator (nurse) suffer greatly from emotional fatigue; these new designs will also assist and help support these nurses.

“There are a lot of usability and wearability issues for patients and carers,” Wrigley explains.

The development of a total artificial heart is not far away. Now it’s an entire system. Associate Professor Wrigley and the team are also trying to increase donation rates of organs (the heart being the most difficult to donate). A root cause of the problem.

“Cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer in Australia. As this problem grows, donating a heart is becoming very difficult, because of the conditions that need to be in place. There are lots of ways that design can get involved. We are just at the beginning,” Wrigley says.

Improving the quality of the life of patients, careers and clinicians is a problem we can solve now, today and not something that will appear in ten years’ time.

This research is being supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre for Research Excellence (APP1079421) through the Critical Care Research Group and leadership of Professor John Fraser.

Sally Quinn

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