Remedying OR Safety Issues

By Richard Harth
Remedying OR Safety Issues Image 1

Each year, more fatalities result from missteps or technical failures in the operating room than from car accidents, breast cancer, or complications from AIDS, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.

IIT Associate Professor Jennifer Kang-Mieler and her biomedical engineering students are working to improve the OR environment. Their five-year project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will allow 25–35 fourth-year students in Kang-Mieler's two-semester capstone BME course to work on biomedical innovations to increase safety.

“People assume that very sophisticated technology in the OR means that safety has improved, but that is not always the case,” Kang-Mieler says. “We really have to look at the culture in the OR.” To do this, she has teamed up with fellow BME Associate Professor Derek Kamper and John White, chair of the Department of Surgery of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.

“Improvement in patient safety requires redesigning the operating room to support and enhance all aspects of the surgical procedure,” White says. “These advances will come only through bright minds trained in analyzing processes, such as biomedical engineers.”

Under the new grant, the students will analyze the complete OR environment, interacting with the surgeons as well as with the complex network of nurses and support staff. Students will apply user-centered design techniques in which a constant dialog between bioengineers and end users helps fine tune resulting innovations.

One of many OR practices student teams have sought to improve is the meticulous counting of surgical tools and gauze required before and after operations, to prevent such foreign objects being left in patients—an ongoing safety issue that affects roughly one in every 1,500 intra-abdominal surgeries.

“Every year we have great ideas coming out of these students,” Kang-Mieler says. “We’d really like to take some of these to the next level by encouraging students to apply for patents and explore commercial possibilities.”

A New Device for the Visually Impaired

Students studying under Jennifer Kang-Mieler are applying their work beyond the OR. One of Kang-Mieler’s student groups won first place in the 2012 ASME Undergraduate Design Project Competition in Rehabilitation and Assistive Devices by developing a unique instrument known as VIOLET Cane, designed to assist the sight-impaired. Read more about it: