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Taking the pressure off

Photo of Professors Carmen DiGiovine (left) and Sandra Metzler with Sit Smart, a wireless device that monitors pressure points.Professors Carmen DiGiovine (left) and Sandra Metzler are the driving force behind Sit Smart, a wireless pad that monitors pressure points. [photo: Katrina Norris]Pressure ulcers are painful, difficult to treat and often lead to life-threatening complications. They also place a tremendous financial burden on the health care system—pressure ulcers are treated in 500,000 patients annually at a cost of $11 billion. 

Hoping to make pressure ulcers a thing of the past, a group of Ohio State engineers developed and are working to commercialize a high-tech, portable pad that monitors pressure points.

To prevent pressure ulcers from developing, regularly shifting positions is key, said Carmen DiGiovine, associate clinical professor of health and rehabilitation sciences and biomedical engineering. He directs the Assistive Technology Center at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, where preventing pressure ulcers is a constant concern, especially for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

“Fifty to 85 percent of people with spinal cord injuries will develop a pressure ulcer in their lifetime,” DiGiovine said. “But once they develop one, there’s a 100 percent chance they’ll develop a second.”

Patients and caregivers understand the importance of frequently shifting positions, but a system to remind them and to monitor and measure pressure points is equally imperative. 

Geared toward use in medical clinics, available pressure monitoring devices are expensive, lack portability and require a clinician for interpretation. 

In order to truly prevent pressure ulcers, DiGiovine said, clinicians need to know what’s happening in patients’ daily lives. 

This is where his team’s solution, Sit Smart, takes a stand. The portable, wireless pressure mat integrates with an app and gives real-time feedback via a smartphone or other device to let patients know when they need to shift positions. It also provides advanced data to clinicians about a patient’s behavior over time, allowing for long-term monitoring and analysis. While aimed at people with spinal cord injuries, hospitals and long-term care facilities, the innovation could be expanded for use by people who work in sedentary jobs, such as truck drivers.

Driven by the clinical need, DiGiovine was approached by Dynamic Controls in New Zealand about developing a similar product. 

“It didn’t work exactly the way we wanted it to,” he said. “The part that we were having problems with was the sensors and that’s where the engineering aspects of it come in.”

Fixing the sensors, he knew, was a problem that Ohio State students could tackle. DiGiovine collaborates with Sandra Metzler, assistant clinical professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, on a capstone course focused on solving design problems with assistive devices for persons with disabilities. A partnership between the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the course teams engineering students with occupational or physical therapy students to work on real-world design challenges.

A team of four engineering students and one occupational therapy student signed up to work on the Sit Smart capstone project during the 2013-2014 school year. 

“They developed a really good, working prototype,” said Metzler.

Engineering students Kaitlin DeRussy, Ben Siderits, Molly Mollica and Matt Lynch continued working on the project even after graduation. 

“We even formed a limited liability company, where we all own one-sixth of nothing for now, but we hope to turn it into something,” Metzler said.

The team is currently working on optimizing the design, determining the best data collection algorithms for both consumer and clinician users and finalizing the next prototype. Once that’s done, they plan to seek permission to conduct clinical testing at Wexner Medical Center. 

“Then we’ll be at a point where we’re meeting the milestones required of the potential partner,” DiGiovine said. “If we get to that point, we’ll officially license it out.”

That industry partner, DiGiovine explained, has already created a good, consumer-based application, which provides feedback on at-risk pressure points and encourages long-term behavior modification.

Sit Smart was a finalist in the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America’s (RESNA) 2014 Student Design Competition and the 2015 Big IDEAs for Health grand prize, a forum hosted by Wexner Medical Center to promote new healthcare product or service concepts. The team received a $25,000 Accelerator Award from Ohio State’s Technology Commercialization Office to support their commercialization efforts.  

The process of teaming with Ohio State students to bring their clinical solutions to life was so successful that DiGiovine and Metzler have already launched a second project, called Smart Hub.

Smart Hub is an electronic personal fitness tracking device for manual wheelchair users designed to monitor force, velocity, torque, total exertion, cadence, stroke, distance traveled and more. The data it collects could be used by consumers, healthcare professionals and researchers to monitor wheelchair users’ daily habits, reduce their risk for injury and optimize wheelchair set up. 

Smart Hub placed second in RESNA’s 2015 Student Design Competition, DiGiovine said, and will soon be ready for clinical testing.

Knowing the true impact they could have on patients’ lives inspires DiGiovine and Metzler to keep commercializing their ideas. 

“We’re not traditional researchers. We’re looking for practical solutions to real-world problems that we see and that’s what drives us,” DiGiovine said. “We’re going to figure this out because we have more ideas waiting behind these. If we can do it this first time, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier in the future.” 

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu