Eric Zhao is using his unique background in engineering and medicine to bring on big changes to the clinical practice. Like any big change, it’s an uphill battle.
On this episode of Boldly, Dr. Breanne Everett from the Joule Innovation Council interviews grant recipient and medical student, Eric Zhao. In their fascinating conversation, they dive into incremental improvement within the medical space. Together, they discuss their individual struggles to change medical processes, especially the fundamental ones. Zhao shares his diverse background in physics, physiology and biomedical engineering—all of which he pursued before medical school.
His unique experience made him an invaluable member on his Hatching Health team. Together, he and his team created Lumina. Lumina’s device is a toolkit for central line access―and combines the tools for needle insertion, flashback verification, and guidewire insertion into one compact, ergonomic tool.
Listen now to discover what he learned through his hackathon experience and how it got him to where he is today.
tweetable: “The hardest part about designing a new product or innovation is…identifying a true problem worthy of a novel solution.”
How did Eric Zhao end up where he is today?
- His parents were both mechanical engineers, which got him interested in how things are made. As a child, he even used to take apart his toys.
- Before medical school, he studied physics and physiology. He even completed a masters degree in biomedical engineering.
- He is driven to use his knowledge and training to find undiscovered solutions.
tweetable: “Right now, we’re at the stage where that prior training can be used as a stepping stone.”
Did he plan to pursue biomedical innovation?
- Yes. Specifically, he wanted to focus on biomedical device design.
- Unfortunately, engineers often create products that are intriguing, but don’t necessarily fill an unmet need.
- Before getting started, he wanted to identify a problem that genuinely needed to be solved.
tweetable: “Engineers [can] get caught up in coming up with a really cool solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.”
How does Zhao’s unique background influence his views on clinical training?
- Different training helps gain new perspective.
- He appreciates the value and power of standardization.
- Because everyone’s physiology is different, it’s much more difficult to standardize in medicine compared to other fields he’s used to.
tweetable: “I’ve met lots of surgeons and physicians who have great ideas, but they have no time to pursue them.”
Lumina got started at a hackathon. Why did he choose to participate in that event?
- He knew the people involved in that Hatching Health event.
- Although he began with his own ideas, he ended up joining another team.
- His team included two engineering students, a practicing biomedical engineer and a dentistry student.
- Together, they found ways to improve the process for needle insertion, flashback verification and guidewire insertion.
tweetable: “It would be great to have more structures where these people can meet other like-minded people or people with complementary skill-sets so they can get some of those ideas off the ground.”
How does Lumina work?
- The main pain point they have identified in the original process is that after getting flashback, the medical professional must hold the needle perfectly still.
- As this isn’t always possible, they often have to restart the process.
- Their device improves the ergonomics of this procedure. Nothing needs removing or twisting. They can apply force in a way that allows for more control.
- Through early-stage testing, he believes it is a drastic improvement.
- Tiny changes make a difference in situations where seconds matter.
tweetable: “When you’re dealing with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, seconds really matter for [the] long-term neurological outcome.”
How does viewing things through an engineering lens help?
- He applied many things he learned from engineering, like “framing the problem.”
- It makes him seek that unmet need.
- Engineering is about asking the right questions to see whether or not the traditional way is best.
What has Zhao learned about the approval process and its challenges?
- It can be advantageous for the process to be similar to what already exists. It lets innovators ‘piggy-back’ off of previous tests and trials.
- The barrier to entry is high, and that is a frustration. It’s costly.
- Because these incremental changes aren’t always perceived as viable, medical professionals (and their patients) are stuck with the same processes they have used for decades. It’s not improving patient care.
tweetable: “You’re sort of piggy-backing on prior tests and results that have demonstrated the safety and ethics [of] these devices.”
What inspired him to keep working on Lumina after the event?
- His teammates—now his co-founders—inspired him.
- It was a fantastic learning experience (and fun), so he wanted to continue pursuing it.
tweetable: “We’re still waiting on some of the trial results…but right now people are quite excited about it.”
What practical advice would he give to medical students?
- Find an unmet need and meet it.
- Don’t get carried away creating a solution to a small-scale problem.
- Read the book Biodesign: The Process of Innovating Medical Technologies.
tweetable: “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of identifying the problem…so finding that unmet need.”
- Meet emerging physician innovators Charles Choi and Eric Zhao, a Boldly video.
- When worlds collide: unique perspective leads to portable GPS for surgeons, a Boldly article featuring neurosurgeon and engineer Dr. Bill Wang.
- Life after the great hatch: Simplifying access with Lumina, a Hatching Health 2018 success story.
- Tomorrow’s Doctors Must Be Engineers Too, an IEEE Spectrum article about engineering and medicine.
- Engineering solutions for the future of modern medicine, an article from The Guardian.
- Hackathons aren’t just for coders. We can use them to save lives, a Wired article.
Are you making waves in innovation or have a bold idea to share? We would love to hear your story. Connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to have your thoughts featured in a future podcast.
The opinions stated by podcast participants are made in a personal capacity and do not reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries, including Joule. Joule does not endorse any views, product, service, association, company or industry mentioned in this podcast.
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