CEDAR RAPIDS — About six months ago, UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids opened an innovation lab for clinicians and other hospital staff to test their entrepreneurialism and turn their ideas for improving patient care into reality.
Since mid-March, “generate” at St. Luke’s has pivoted to focus on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened thousands and brought dozens of patients to the hospital.
From intubation boxes to transport devices to a face mask design that has gained traction nationwide, creations from the open-access medical technology lab help front-line workers navigate the day-to-day challenges that come from caring for novel coronavirus patients.
“Six months ago, there’s no way we could have anticipated that we would be responding to a pandemic,” said Rose Hedges, with St. Luke’s Nursing Research and innovation coordinator with the lab.
The medical technology and learning lab is the one of the first hands-on fabrication labs built within a hospital setting in the country, officials say. The lab opened through a partnership with a Boston-based company called MakerHealth, a spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Little Devices Lab.
Located on St. Luke Hospital’s first floor, the lab houses equipment — including a 3D printer, a laser cutter and handheld tools — available for staff to build prototypes to be tested and reviewed for implementation in the patient care setting.
And since the first cases of COVID-19 began appearing in the United States, hospital officials began preparing for the possibility of a surge of patients. Since the pandemic unfolded, Hedges said, between five and 10 clinicians have been in the lab on any given day.
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Hedges said more than 20 inventions have been created since the pandemic began, such as a device used to transport presumptive and positive COVID-19 patients throughout the hospital.
It’s not just new inventions they are working on. The lab’s laser cutter recently has been used to engrave stethoscopes, labeling them as specific to the floor where COVID-19 patients are cared for. By labeling them, Hedges said, officials hope to aid in infection control.
On Monday, clinicians were attempting to reverse-engineer feeding tubes. In the event the supply chain is constrained, Hedges said, officials are looking to other materials that could be adapted to make necessary supplies.
“Worldwide, supply and demand is a huge problem for lots of different materials, so some of it is trying to stay ahead of the game as far as where we are going to run short,” Hedges said.
One of the first projects out of the medical innovation lab was one developed to protect doctors and nurses who are intubating patients, or placing a breathing tube into a patient’s airway and then connecting it to a ventilator.
Placing a clear box called an intubation box over the patient’s head protects the clinicians from tiny airborne particles containing the coronavirus generated during intubation, said Dr. Nathan Harmon, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s.
By blocking these aerosolized virus particles from moving around the room, the box reduces the risk of transmission, Harmon said.
Intubation boxes have been implemented in other hospitals across the country in light of COVID-19, prompting St. Luke’s emergency medicine physicians to ask the innovation lab to help the physicians create their own version.
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“Every idea we’ve come up with, the hospital and the lab helped us come up with some version of it,” Harmon said. “ ... Between the lab and the hospital itself, there are few things we’ve asked for that they haven’t been able to come up with.”
Another project to come from the generate lab was a collaboration between Hedges and MakerHealth Fabrication Fellow Clayton Skousen to design a fabric face mask called the Olson mask, named in honor of 1930s maker and nurse Lyla Mae Olson.
The Olson mask is used by patients and staff to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading to others in the facility.
The pattern for the mask, which was posted on UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids’ website along with a YouTube tutorial, has drawn more than 24,000 mask donations to the hospital in the past several weeks. Officials say these donations have come to Cedar Rapids from 35 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Canada.
Hedges said the pattern for the mask, which includes a pocket for a filter, also has been downloaded in more than 100 countries.
“When we started that back in the middle of March, no idea was going to go as far as it did,” Hedges said, adding that it’s incredible to create something “to help protect the community, however far that community is.”
As the pandemic continues for the foreseeable future, Hedges said the effort at generate will continue as well.
“I feel privileged to be pioneering this work inside of a hospital in our region,” Hedges said. “Having a medical fabrication lab inside a hospital is not a common thing, so being able to do that here in Eastern Iowa has been incredible.”
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