The value of cross-disciplinary surgical innovation programs — A trainee’s perspective

by Sarah Amini (an MSc student in the AP Lab @ Concordia University and Trainee in the Surgical Innovation Program)

The Surgical Innovation graduate training program is a multidisciplinary collaboration between McGill, Concordia and ETS universities in Montreal. This program joins students from computer science with students from business (MBA), medical and engineering backgrounds into teams, and guides them through their path in coming up with innovative solutions for clinical needs, and making their solutions marketable.

The students in this program have the opportunity to observe clinical environment at McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in their first term. During this period, they get familiar with different parts of the hospital, and learn how they function. The aim of this process is to give them an idea of what is actually happening in hospitals backstage and lets them think of potential improvements that can be done. It is very common that clinicians and medical staff become so used to their workflows and everyday tasks that they have been following or the instrument that they had been using, so much that they cannot see the flaws anymore. By allowing students to observe the clinical workflows and surgical procedures the idea is that students, as outside, are more able to see specific disadvantages or inefficiencies in current practices. By the end of the first term, each team has chosen an unmet need that they want to address, and an innovative solution to fulfill this goal. Personally, I found this fascinating because we were able to work on a project that mattered in real life, and had the potential to affect the world. We were given permission to use the McGill University Hospital Centre (MUHC) resources, had mentors to guide us in this path, and we had medical supervisors to evaluate our work. This allowed us to to feel that we had the potential to affect people’s lives in a positive way, and we have the support to do so.

In the second term, students are guided by entrepreneurs, IP advisors, engineers and start-up coaches on how to implement their idea, and develop a proof of concept for their profitable technological solution.

During the summer terms, students are required to do internships at medically oriented companies. They have the chance to gain valuable working experience, network with people who are involved in medical technology innovations, get to know the technologies that are used or appealing to the market, and use the knowledge they have earned to advance their career in this field.

As a computer science Master’s student in this program I thought it was very interesting for two unique reasons. First, the teams are directly exposed to hospital environment. They have the opportunity to observe the work flows in person, and talk to people who are involved. These people, as they are going to be the main “users” of the innovations, can constantly feed the team with their ideas on the innovation, their preferences as users, and even evaluate the prototypes in terms of their efficiency and ease of use. Having the users constantly involved in the process of manufacturing, especially when talking about software, is a highly valuable opportunity that is usually hard to have access to. With the end users involved however, it is certainly more likely the technological solution will be adopted.

Second, the teams are made of members with backgrounds in medicine, finance, bio-design, mechanical engineering and of course computer science. These multidisciplinary teams have the mental and technical ability to touch on a variety of subjects, brainstorm with an open mind and think out of the box, and come up with innovations that engage their wide set of abilities. In today’s world, cross-pollination between areas, and teams with multidisciplinary abilities and knowledge are more successful and more demanded.

To tell you a little bit about my experience, I was part of the plastic surgery team. The team consisted of one mechanical engineer, two experimental surgery students, and one medical student. The problem we decided to address was to ensure the symmetry of the breasts after breast reconstruction surgery. To give you a better understanding of why this is an issue, you must know what breast reconstruction is. One of the common ways to get rid of cancerous tissue in breast cancer is to remove the breast partially or completely, and some patients decide to go do reconstructive surgery afterward, and regain their body image using implants. However, a significant percentage of them are not satisfied with the final result. This problem was brought to our attention by our clinical supervisor, who showed us a number of common breast implants and the result gained by them. These implants have limited shapes and sizes, but women’s breasts have many more different shapes that cannot be imitated by these. As a result, unsatisfied patients can go through multiple n surgeries and implants, hoping for better outcomes. All the costs, the time spent on secondary surgery, the extra implants used for sizing and thrown away, and the pain and suffering of the second surgery could be avoided if we could improve the implant design. And that was what we did. We worked on new designs for the implants and even proposed an AR App that could help the surgeon make better decisions in terms of choosing the right shape and size for each patient both preoperatively or in the operating room.

The borders that divide university courses into academic majors are getting thinner or dissolving completely, and new integrative majors are being introduced to address that need. In the healthcare domain in particular, it is so important for engineers to get a good understanding of the domain they are developing solutions for,  so that they understand the current shortcomings and the potential impact and integration of new solutions. It is then that solutions are more likely to become innovations that become adopted.

Programs such as the Surgical Innovation train students to be exposed from the beginning to multidisciplinary teams, and learn to collaborate and think outside the box, this will train and allow trainees e leading role in the future of technology in health care.

Interested in becoming a trainee in the SI program? Contact marta@ap-lab.ca.

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