Emory Report
April 25, 2005
Volume 58, Number 28


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April 25, 2005
Emory/GT program brings engineering students to Grady

BY alicia sands lurry

Led by School of Medicine emergency medicine physician David Wright, a group of Georgia Tech students are working in Grady Hospital to design real-world solutions to real-life problems every hospital may soon face.

The Biomedical Engineering Emergency Medicine Clinical Immersion (BEEMCI) program at Grady, funded by an endowment from the Coulter Foundation at Georgia Tech, is meant to introduce engineering students to the daily clinical practice of medicine. For six weeks, the engineering students shadow Emory emergency physicians over more than 40 hours to better understand the emergency department environment and develop ways to improve clinic operations. Wright hopes the Georgia Tech students will develop ideas for new clinical technologies such as wireless vital sign-assessment systems, new intravenous designs, or new monitoring devices.

An assistant professor of emergency medicine and assistant director of the Emory Emergency Medicine Research Center at Grady, Wright designed the program. He said the Emory and Georgia Tech collaboration is a perfect marriage, thanks to Emory’s medical school, Georgia Tech’s reputation in engineering and the need for innovative clinical technology in biomedical engineering. The joint Emory-Georgia Tech Department of Biomedical Engineering recently was ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

“There are very few programs providing an actual course or opportunity for students to become truly immersed,” Wright said. “What we’re talking about is engineers understanding the culture of medicine and developing the language to be able to cross-talk between clinical medicine and engineering. Engineers are trained to look at things in a very different way.

“The engineering world has its technologies, but only clinicians know their [own] needs; getting engineers to understand the medical environment and the real limitations of and opportunities for technologies is a relatively novel concept,” he added. “The Emory-Georgia Tech partnership is in a unique position to address those issues.”

Wright co-directs the program with Wendy Newstetter, Georgia Tech’s director of learning sciences research in the biomedical engineering department. The BEEMCI program is part of the Georgia Tech students’ senior design projects; it allows them to fulfill a graduation requirement by developing medical technology.

“This is a perfect project because we’re trying to get our students to become observers of the same caliber as anthropologists,” Newstetter said. “In order for them to identify design opportunities, they have to develop good observational skills.”

The program is a three-semester course. Students spend the first semester at Grady shadowing a team of Emory emergency medicine physicians, gathering information, examining technology, asking questions, and learning logistics and how various equipment and technology works.

The following two semesters are spent completing a senior design project, where a physician, resident or an Emory emergency room charge nurse becomes a student’s “client” as he or she develops technology that can improve how patients are evaluated and treated in the emergency room. The emphasis, Wright, said, is on coming up with innovative but realistic ideas.

“We want to know if students can accomplish their ideas within a specific period of time,” he said. “If they’re looking to create an MRI scanner, that’s a big, grandiose idea. Their ideas have to be feasible.”

But Newstetter said she has high expectations.

“The only way students will design well and design appropriately,” she said, “is to live in the place where they’re designing, to totally understand the environment, the needs of the people, the urgency of the situation, the ebbs and flows and the pacing of the environment, so that when they do design, it’s authentic to the people in the systems that are in place there.

“There’s a real danger in any kind of design when people—particularly engineers—don’t pay attention to or get to know those environments,” Newstetter said. “This is a great opportunity for students to learn and observe the emergency room setting first hand.”