JeffDESIGN program for future doctors

3D printing is fueling innovative healthcare solutions

Drs. Bon Ku and Rob Pugliese are updating traditional medical school education by teaching future doctors to design devices, spaces, and services and become creative healthcare problem solvers as well as physicians.

Dr. Bon Ku and Dr. Rob Pugliese are practicing Emergency Medicine clinicians and professors at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital. They saw firsthand the gap between the skills and preparation levels of recent medical school graduates and knew the challenges that immediately face graduates in the hectic, real-world hospital environment. Ku and Pugliese were also inspired (and continue to be inspired) by the Maker Health movement, a project initiated by MIT's Jose Gomez-Marquez and his team. The two considered how they could make a difference in health professional training by encouraging the creativity, on the spot problem solving, and spirit of initiative that is asked of physicians.

Doctors as designers

The answer was the creation of a Design Lab and the JeffDESIGN program. JeffDESIGN is the first design program that is part of a medical school. “The aim of the program is to teach future doctors to design devices, spaces, and services in healthcare,” says Dr. Ku. And the program is doing more than that; it is teaching them to become creative problem solvers. JeffDESIGN includes hands-on workshops co-taught by doctors, designers, architects, and engineers.

3D printed healthcare solutions

Kathryn Linder, a medical student at Jefferson is part of the Design for Disabilities course led by Pugliese. Linder is learning more than theory; she and classmates are creating a prosthetic hand for 16-year-old Lariq Byrd.  

Linder’s team is working on a brace that will allow the quadriplegic young man to write by hand again. Linder says, “When we’re thinking about solutions, it’s no longer just theoretical, it’s, "How will this fit for Lariq? Is it the right color for Lariq?” Make sure to watch the full video story here.

"These are real, everyday problems we see as practitioners and providers, but currently medical school doesn't prepare doctors to deal with them," said Dr. Ku "These rapid cycles of inquiry, discovery, prototyping, and testing will help future generations of doctors and give them the toolkit to address these problems."

Ku sees the release found in designing as an antidote to a very real problem: physician burnout. When daily problems seem intractable, it can be hard to maintain hope. Ku sees the challenge of design as potent medicine for the medical practitioner. He explains, "What's inherent in design is there's this optimism: You can design a better way." It holds the promise for improved healthcare as well. This optimism can cultivate empathy; and it's possible that future doctors will listen to patients and co-design with them.

3D printed heart by JeffDesign
JeffDesign students learning 3D printing

There is a long history of practicing physicians also acting as inventors and contributing significantly to the advancement of medical technology. However, over the past few decades, medicine has increasingly outsourced this activity to the med-tech industry. Drs. Ku and Pugliese are bringing back the role of physician as inventor. JeffDESIGN enables and empowers students to create their own solutions to healthcare challenges.

3D printers in a medical school

This "design lab in the heart of a medical school" is the first of its kind. It is highly praised for the role it plays in encouraging innovation and design thinking among medical school students. The medical devices that the students are inventing are garnering attention as well. The lab is housed in the vault of the former Second Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. It is an adaptable and functional prototyping/maker space that supports collaboration between healthcare professionals and the many tech industries that impact their work.

JeffDesign program for medical students

Like any design studio, it is filled with paper, pens, sticky-notes, glue-guns, and Popsicle sticks. But this lab has a secret weapon for creativity:  a suite of Ultimaker desktop 3D printers.

The JeffDESIGN team explored the options in desktop 3D printing and found that Ultimakers delivered precision and reliability on par with costly industrial additive manufacturing tools. But the UX and clean appearance give health professionals the confidence to roll up their sleeves to engage with the tool. As Dr. Ku shares: "People are still excited about 3D printing in the healthcare world. While engineers might be a little more jaded - just another thing to make stuff - we have shown medical students and physicians our 3D printers and all of the sudden they are spitting out ideas at us."

That was the lightbulb moment for us. This is not some technology that’s out of reach. It can literally sit on your desk, and it’s easy to use.

The JeffDESIGN program and time spent in the Design Lab teaches medical students, doctors, and nurses that you don’t need to invest a semester in CAD just to print a useful object.

The products these students are producing are not only useful but they are distinct from the mass-produced, cookie-cutter projects that are generally associated with the medical device industry. These designs are more tightly directed towards producing better health outcomes and not how they look in a catalog. The result is real-world solutions that draw from training and experience with actual patients and can make a real difference in the quality of care of patients for future generations.

Disclaimer: Ultimaker 3D printers are designed and built for Fused Filament Fabrication with Ultimaker engineering thermoplastics within a commercial/business environment. The mixture of precision and speed makes the Ultimaker 3D printers the perfect machine for concept models, functional prototypes and the production of small series. Although we achieved a very high standard in the reproduction of 3D models with the usage of Ultimaker Cura, the user remains responsible to qualify and validate the application of the printed object for its intended use, especially critical for applications in strictly regulated areas like medical devices and aeronautics.