Engineering students develop simple alternative to expensive surgical tool for developing world
The sight of a power drill in an operating room might make North American patients shudder, but in many parts of the world, drills like the one you find in a hardware store could be a life-saver.
Expensive surgical drills are few and far between in developing countries, leaving many orthopedic surgeons to find alternatives. Some use manual, hand-powered drills, which are slower and nowhere near as precise.
Power drills are a better option, but difficult to sterilize. That’s why a team of UBC students, at the request of surgeons from Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, has developed a drill cover that speeds up the sterilization process, creating the potential to give more people access to surgical treatment.
Engineers have you covered
Putting a drill in a sterilization machine, known as an autoclave, can damage the machinery. It can also be time-consuming.
“This is a really bad problem because the longer it takes for you to get treatment, the less positive the outcomes are,” says Michael Cancilla, who recently earned his master’s in biomedical engineering from UBC and is working on the drill cover project.
Their solution? A waterproof cloth bag that prevents anything from entering or exiting the power drill and can easily be sterilized. The bag seals off the body of the drill, exposing only a drill chuck, a piece of metal that connects the drill to the drill bit. The chuck can be tossed into the autoclave along with the cover, which prevents the drill itself from being exposed to the blood, bones and tissue that can transmit disease.
“One power drill with five chucks and five covers means that there could be five surgeries in a day in one OR,” says Marianne Black, a recent graduate of the master’s of biomedical engineering program and one of the
creators of the drill cover. The team has calculated that a drill with five covers and fives chucks can be purchased for about $500 to $800, far cheaper than a $30,000 surgical drill.
Black and Cancilla are part of a team of students from the Engineers in Scrubs project, which brings surgeons and engineers together to identify and solve problems in hospitals. They partnered with the Uganda Sustainable Trauma Orthopaedic Program (USTOP), a group of UBC surgeons that visit Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda twice a year to assist with surgeries.
The students heard from the surgeons that inexpensive power drills from the hardware store could be a suitable replacement for a surgical drill. In some extreme cases trauma surgeons were already using power drills and found that the quality was almost as good as a surgical drill.
Orthopedic surgery is in high demand in low-income countries where car accidents are a major cause of injury.
“The burden of musculoskeletal injury is significant in the people who are most frequently hurt, that is young, working people,” says Peter O’Brien, a UBC orthopedic surgeon and a member of the orthopedic surgery team that visits Uganda. “With traditional methods of treatment, they’re often left with a disability that prevents them from returning to their normal work.”
Ramping up efforts in Kampala
The UBC group is now taking their drill cover to the next level with some guidance from the entrepreuneurship@UBC program. They received money to develop a prototype and search for a fabric that has antibacterial and antiviral properties and is also waterproof and strong.
UBC also connected the students with mentors to help them navigate the business side of things. The students want to provide the covers to any surgeon who needs them, but there is a cost to producing them. Black says wrapping their heads around the practical issues was more challenging than they expected. Developing a medical device means there are plenty of regulations and procedures to follow.
Currently 18 drill covers are being used at Mulago Hospital and students will begin a bigger trial in September. One member of the team will be in Uganda to help train the hospital staff to use the covers. They’ve also hired a local to track costs and efficiency so they can be sure the covers are helping solve the problem.
“We want to ensure that the drill covers are doing a good job and that we’re providing an optimal solution,” says Black. “We don’t want to give them a second-rate solution.”
Learn more about the Drill Cover Project at www.drillcover.com.