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Creating User-Friendly Medical Technology

Students design medical technologies with the patient in mind.

At Tufts University in Massachusetts, students are designing medical technology that’s user-friendly for seniors -- and it’s all part of a new field called human factors.

Typically engineers build laptops, PDAs, medical devices -- you name it -- and consumers learn to use them as designed. But what if product development was approached from the user side rather than the technology side? That’s exactly what human factors does.

While this field is somewhat new, it’s growing, according to Dan Hannon, a professor in Tufts School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Looking at the human factors in design is something you see companies starting to pay an increasing amount of attention to,” he says. “We’re seeing emphasis on this for product design and system development over a wide spectrum in industry. It improves safety and usability, and a lot of companies are starting to see that it does affect their bottom line in a positive way.”

Even back in 1997, a report by the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education noted that many professionals were optimistic about the discipline’s future because sectors of the economy, such as health care and telecommunications, offer growing opportunities for the application of human factors.

Using human factors to create medical technology for the elderly is a perfect fit, since technology doesn’t typically come as naturally to them. In particular, they could use help with self-care, which is essential for maintaining their health, according to the study A Meta-Analysis of Self-Care Behavior Research on Elders in Thailand, an Update. With this population expected to double in the next

20 years, the use of personal medical technology to monitor and manage an individual’s health could play an important role in keeping seniors healthy while holding down medical costs.

The Tufts program, made possible by Cambridge Consultants, an international product development company, gave engineering students practical human-factors experience. Students thought about how the technology should work so the elderly can use it easily, safely and comfortably. “They learn how to design products or conduct research that allows us to understand human performance and [its] limitations,” Hannon says, “and how to take those measurements and turn them into the requirements for the design of a new product or system.”

Students visited a retirement community in Lexington, Mass., twice, first speaking with residents about their daily life, activities, as well as their thoughts about a device designed to connect them with their medical information, says Leslie Johnston, a graduate of Tufts University School of Engineering and project team member.

The second time, the students came back with a few prototypes for residents to try. “There’s an incredibly wide range of abilities and comfort with technology, regardless of age within that group,” she says. “Some people were on Skype with their grandchildren every day, and some people didn’t even want to carry a cell phone.”

The result was a handheld device prototype, roughly the size of a CD, for seniors on the go. As part of the “diet and exercise” function, they could enter the number of miles walked; via the “medication” function, they could record and receive reminders on when to take their medication; and using the long-term in-home storage and viewing center, they could update vital-sign readings using sensors, access an “interactive pillbox” for reference medical information and quickly see overviews of current health data.

And who knows -- this device just might make it to the mainstream. Though the semester is over, Johnston was hired at Cambridge Consultants as a full-time employee. Her boss, Melanie Turieo, principal human factors engineer, says this project will receive more attention. “We do intend to take the foundation of what they put together,” she says, “and do some more detailed development and see what we get from it.”

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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