LAWRENCE — The days of the kindly country doctor making house calls might be long gone, but according to University of Kansas professor Gregory Thomas, the day may soon come again when a health care practitioner brings primary care to the doors of rural Kansans.
Student research by an advanced industrial design and engineering studio at the KU Center for Design Research would enable that effort. They’re working on a prototype of what Thomas calls the “WellCar.”
“Unlike current medical vehicles, whose capabilities are generally dedicated to simple tasks such as immunizations and health awareness programs, the WellCar model will enable nurse practitioners to provide an broad array of comprehensive, prevention-based patient care services,” said Thomas, a design professor in the KU School of Architecture, Design and Planning and director of the Center for Design Research. “That’s what makes this project so different.”
The need is acute. People in rural areas must travel for hours to seek a doctor or health care facility. For those who are not ambulatory and depend on others, travel adds anxiety to their illness. WellCar could lower the incidence of “bounce back” patients, who return to the hospital due to complications from an earlier procedure.
The goal is to create a sophisticated medical office on wheels. The WellCar project will put many devices under one vehicle’s roof, integrate them and develop a means of securely exchanging a patient’s medical data to hospitals or clinics where it can be evaluated. Some treatments could be given, and prescriptions written on the spot.
“Most companies developing new medical technology are focused on their product only,” Thomas said. “They are not looking at the bigger picture, or how a number of different tools, each with a specific purpose in diagnostics and treatment, can be bundled for availability in a vehicle.”
The project will also evaluate medical devices that could be provided to a patient to monitor his or her condition at home and send the data to the medical center. This would allow medical staff to decide when to schedule a visit or make adjustments in the medication or treatment regimen.
Thomas will utilize the talents of students in his Advanced Design Studies 560 class, who will work on the project during the semester. Though the project is still in the conceptual stages, Thomas said he hopes to have an initial functional prototype of the WellCar in 2014.
Thomas adds that the goal for this year is to conduct research on the feasibility and design of the WellCar, then use that data to develop funding proposals for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation in the fall of 2014.
“This is a great opportunity for students to work on a real-world project,” Thomas said. “They’ll get to conceptualize it, plan it and then begin figuring out how to incorporate and design technologies into the WellCar.”
The WellCar research brings together many industry partners that will provide medical sensing devices, communications and consulting advice. These include Abbott Point of Care, HealthSTATS, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Kansas City Plant, Sprint, Voalte and others.
These medical technology providers will ensure the WellCar uses cutting-edge technology. Abbott Point-of-Care is providing its i-STAT handheld blood chemistry analyzer. HealthSTATS will provide "EVBP, evidence-based blood pressure," noninvasive approach to monitoring, treating and managing hypertension using a wristwatch-like device.
Sprint will provide the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for the WellCar. Voalte will provide its smartphone technology that allows health care practitioners to communicate directly through voice, alarms and text. The NNSA can make custom vehicle modifications.
The WellCar itself will be designed around the Ford Transit Connect Wagon. The CDR already has an ongoing relationship with Ford Motor Co. Thomas’ classes have completed several projects with them over the last two years, including a smart car seat for children, and a redesign of Ford automatic gear shifters.
KU partners at KU Medical Center include the Diabetes Institute, Midwest Cancer Alliance, and the Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth. Partners at the main campus include the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the Transportation Research Institute.
The study will also examine financial viability of health care delivery via the WellCar, contrasting it with an assessment of the current effectiveness of rural health care delivery models.
“Clearly many have a stake in the development of a WellCar, both from the medical and patient perspectives,” said Thomas.