UI students, professor create new hospital communication tool

BY LAUREN COFFEY | MAY 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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After 10 years of working with an idea that would change patients’ experiences in hospitals, University of Iowa Professor Richard Hurtig’s dream has become a reality.

Hurtig, who teaches in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has worked in hospitals for his entire academic career, and he saw a glaring need in one specific aspect of communication.

“There’s a class of patients for a variety of reasons that end up on ventilators,” Hurtig said. “They can’t produce sound. We wanted to find a very, very easy way for patients to have communication — such as being able to summon nurses, turn the fan on and off on their own, turn the TV on and off on their own, just to have control and be able to use technology that will speak for them.”

Hurtig’s idea — later named Iowa Smart Switch — takes the slight sounds or movements from a patient and, following a pattern of that person, will alert the hospital staff of what the patient wants.

If people wanted a nurse’s assistance, for example, they could make one small sound, and if they wanted to watch TV they could make two small sounds.

Hurtig said this is unique because it ignores all the loud noises that come with a hospital and focuses solely on the patient.

“It takes a very minimal signal, and it embeds it in the environment’s noise and pulls it out,” Hurtig said. “It allows the patient to gain control. It has a tiny microphone placed at the lips, and it can detect the sound and tell the patient one, two, or three things they can do.”

Patients who have trouble communicating with their caregivers are three times more likely to experience complications during their hospital stay.

Initially, Iowa Smart Switch started to take more shape when Hurtig introduced it to a group of four UI students who were in the Iowa Medical Innovation Group — a class that allows interdisciplinary work among students to create a project.

It includes law, engineering, medical, and business students.

“I went into it as a way to get involved, maybe create a start-up company,” said Ben Berkowitz, a UI graduate student studying biomedical engineering. “But really, I just wanted the experience for the whole thing. You have this short period of time, and you’re learning as you’re working on it, so it was definitely ambitious.”

The group initially started work on the project in January.

In just a few months, the four students had created a prototype.

In late April, the students presented the Iowa Smart Switch product to a UI contest and won the 2012-13 Hubert E. Storer Engineering Student Entrepreneurial Start-up Award. This awarded the project $10,000 to create its own start-up company.

The group was given a $5,000 budget. The Iowa Smart Switch has used roughly $1,000 so far.

The group is in the process of getting a patent and making the product marketable to the public.

Vince Hahn, a UI student earning an M.B.A. in business, said he has high hopes for Iowa Smart Switch.

“There’s nothing else like this out right now,” he said. “We’re very excited, and I hope we can get it into every hospital in the U.S. It’s easy to use, it improves the quality of care for patients, and it can also save hospitals money.”

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