Designing for Health

The industrial design program at Auburn University has a long history of using design to solve health care problems. The problems vary in complexity, ranging from something like a medical instrument that is uncomfortable to hold to the propensity for back injuries in health care workers. No matter the scale of the problem, industrial designers play a vital role in the development of innovative, user-focused devices and products to fill critical health care needs.

For Dr. W. Lee Warren, a neurosurgeon at Auburn Spine and Neurosurgery Center, that critical need was better scope visibility in spinal procedures. The delicate procedures are minimally invasive, meaning the incision point is quite small. While the procedures are effective, Dr. Warren and his colleagues found maneuvering in the constrained space difficult. Dr. Warren approached industrial design professor Shea Tillman about the problem and identified the issues: the instrument blocking the view, the need to maintain a small access port and the reflection distortion from materials. The resulting product, “square to round port,” modified the shape of the surgical port where it meets the scope while maintaining the shape where it contacts the patient. The small modification significantly improved both visibility for the surgeon and access space for instruments.

The surgery instrumentation project success led to more opportunities for partnerships. In 2017, the industrial design program launched Studio+Health, a collaborative, hands-on approach to teaching design and development of user-focused health care products. Studio+Health built relationships with doctors and researchers at East Alabama Medical Center and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, or UAB.

In studio classes held in partnership with UAB, students from UAB’s biomedical engineering program worked on a medical device innovation over the course of a semester, providing proof of concept to confirm feasibility. Then, under leadership from professor Tillman, the industrial design students selected projects from those initial plans and applied their expertise to refine the designs and move them closer to market-ready. Christopher Arnold, school head for Auburn’s School of Industrial and Graphic Design, said, “Industrial designers support and augment the work of a broad range of professions. Our practice involves making sense of real-world needs, behaviors and processes in order to define and develop the most appropriate solutions. In doing so, we often leverage innovative technologies, improving on them, optimizing their value, streamlining production and enhancing the associated human experience. Doing so benefits everyone involved.”

As part of the human-centered design process at the core of the industrial design program, students began their work on the medical device by investigating the impact of the product, visiting health care sites to see how health care providers work and how patients interact with devices to identify potential issues. After interviewing disciplinary experts like doctors, nurses, biomedical engineers and other stakeholders to understand current challenges, the students worked to create multiple product solutions, staying engaged with the experts throughout the process. Students then built physical prototypes and digital simulations of the product and user interface to receive feedback before moving toward a final product. Professor Tillman said, “This studio process gives students the opportunity to learn critical skills in the user-centered design process: how to work on interdisciplinary teams, how to communicate design ideas through models and simulations to a variety of stakeholders, and how to improve and refine ideas to create a better product.”

An example of a problem addressed through Studio+Health is the issue of falls in hospitals. Falls significantly prolong a patient’s recovery, and finding solutions to prevent falls would improve health outcomes for patients and reduce adverse outcomes for hospitals.

Starting with projects developed by the biomedical engineering students, the industrial design students worked to understand how falls occur and refined the initial designs to create medical devices to reduce the incidence of falls. The students found that falls often happen as patients attempt to transition from the bed to standing unassisted. Industrial design student Camille DeShazo developed specialized handrails on hospital beds that help with that transition. When gripped by a patient attempting to stand, the handrails on the bed automatically check the patient’s blood pressure through the skin and flash red to alert the nurse if the measurement is too low for the patient to safely stand. If the patient is within the prescribed limits, a second handrail pivots up from the bed to assist the patient. Another fall-prevention project by student Xue Dong addressed the problem of patients leaning on unsteady IV stands for strength or balance. Current IV stands are not intended to hold the weight of a patient, but the developed innovation adds additional weight and stability to the stand to allow it to be more safely used as an impromptu crutch.

While Studio+Health paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty work in the health care space continued. At the beginning of the pandemic, lecturer Zachary Kohrman was inspired by the difficulties hospitals had finding sufficient high-quality personal protective equipment due to supply limits. Kohrman designed a respirator system (patent pending), that can be easily sterilized and reused to offer health care providers protection and reduce the need for disposable masks.

Associate professor Benjamin Bush is working with Auburn University faculty in engineering, kinesiology and nursing to improve blood and vaccine transport.

Industrial design faculty member Randall Bartlett (now professor emeritus) worked with building science professor Dr. Scott Kramer to develop a medical backpack (patent pending) to assist health care professionals working in remote locations. The innovation resulted from a need in medical missions in Central America, but it has applications in rural areas and disaster response in America as well.

Professor Rich Britnell has partnered with Aptar CSP Technologies, a medical device company headquartered in Auburn, for sponsored studios examining product innovations in medicine delivery and packaging.

Both faculty and student projects are highly collaborative, with industrial designers partnering with professionals in many disciplines to improve health care outcomes. The work in health care industrial design has also resulted in new internship and employment opportunities for industrial design graduates, including at Johnson & Johnson, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and MedVenture. Construction recently began on the Auburn University Hood-McPherson Building in Birmingham, offering new opportunities for long-term partnerships with the medical industry there. Through these new and existing partnerships, Auburn’s faculty and students continue to explore the role industrial designers play in development of user-focused products to meet health care needs.