Bridging Fields to Improve Patient Care

Biomedical Engineering Nursing Students

A hallmark of a Widener education is providing students with the types of real-world experiences that prepare them for their careers.

Alumnus Hunter McGowan ’18 is a textbook example of this practice in action.

As an engineer for a medical device manufacturer, McGowan works directly with nurses and clinicians to develop new devices or address issues arising with existing ones.

His daily work mirrors an interdisciplinary course he took at Widener that paired him and other biomedical engineering students with nursing students, to address unmet needs in the health field, specifically relating to medical devices.

This was the perfect class for going into the medical device industry. The clinical relevance and human factors – it’s what I do for a career, and it’s exactly what I did in that class. — Hunter McGowan '18

That class started as a way to bridge the campus divide between nursing and biomedical engineering students, who work on different ends of the health field spectrum. The goal is to give each group a better appreciation of what the other does, and to show how interconnected these professions really are.

Biomedical engineers design and build devices that nurses and other clinicians use daily. Engineers should, therefore, understand their clients’ needs and on-the-job realities. Nurses, meanwhile, should understand what engineers face, including mechanical limitations.

“We wanted students to realize how important yet hard the job is for the other profession,” said Dr. Anita Singh, associate professor of biomedical engineering, who developed the course with nursing faculty members Dawn Ferry and the late Dr. Susan Mills. “Can we create an environment that’s interdisciplinary and interprofessional? It’s two different disciplines coming together in the same educational setting.”

Supported by a more than $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the course includes a series of lectures and talks by industry experts.

The course also includes two hands-on simulation scenarios that occur in Widener’s nursing Simulation Labs. Teams of both engineering and nursing students tackle a problem with a medical device – for example, a faulty glucose monitor. These exercises are designed to foster better communication and problem-solving skills between the students.

“The students are looking at the problem through someone else’s eyes. It’s bridging the gap between the classroom and the clinic,” said Ferry.

The students are then sent to an actual clinical setting, primarily in an operating room environment, to observe a medical procedure. Widener partners with several local hospitals and institutes that welcome students to watch orthopedic and eye surgeries, physical therapy sessions, and more. During these clinical immersions, the students are looking for unmet needs or problems – places where they could possibly make improvements.

These interdisciplinary teams then take an identified unmet need and brainstorm a solution. They consult with the physician providers from their visits, and outline their device improvement using computer-based software modeling, while taking size, weight, materials, cost, and other constraints into account.

Some engineering students have even taken these designs a step further to create an actual prototype as part of their capstone senior-design project course, with nursing students serving as consultants.

During his senior year, McGowan led a team to design two retractors to potentially be used in hand surgeries. Students had previously observed that during these procedures, physician assistants had to hold the retractor for the surgeon.

McGowan’s team designed an improved handheld retractor with ergonomic handle, as well as an automatic retractor that could be attached to the surgical table. The automatic retractor was built with parts manufactured in the university’s engineering machine shop; the improved handheld retractor was sent to France for its parts to be 3D-printed. The team built both with a budget of $400, funded through the NIH grant.

Nursing alumna Sarah Mae Medalla ’18, who took the engineering-nursing class her junior year, served as a consultant on the retractor prototype designs.

“I gave them my advice. I understood the technique, the way the retractor should click on, and the realities of the field,” she said.

Working on the project showed Medalla that “you’re never too young to make an improvement in the medical field. Something small like a retractor could make a huge difference and even save people’s lives.”

Like McGowan, Medalla uses what she learned in the engineering-nursing class in her daily work, and it even impacted the trajectory of her career. Originally considering pediatric nursing, Medalla splits her time between serving as an operating room nurse and working with medical device vendors to offer her clinical insights.

Medalla credits the class with helping to improve her ability to communicate medical issues to people not working in the clinical setting.

“Widener puts an emphasis on collaboration and team effort,” she said. “It’s a great interdisciplinary education. It gives you a different perspective.”

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