Better Together: Innovating at the CVC to meet patients’ needs

March 4, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,
The team behind the new app celebrates at the CVC Innovation Challenge.

Mark Burson spent more than 13 months as an inpatient at Michigan Medicine. But his work since being discharged in May 2017 ensures that his legacy will last a lot longer than that.

That’s because Burson and a team of clinicians, staff and members of the Frankel Cardiovascular Center’s Innovation Program have come together to enhance patient care at Michigan Medicine.

Their cutting-edge project to develop a new app that will help patients and staff communicate with one another was recently named the winner of the annual Frankel Cardiovascular Center Innovation Challenge, earning much-needed funding that will help take it from vision to reality.

‘A difficult struggle’

In April 2016, Burson checked in to Michigan Medicine after he wasn’t feeling well and having trouble breathing.

Within two weeks, he was diagnosed with heart failure, put on a total artificial heart and added to the heart transplant waiting list. That began a year-long journey that eventually included kidney and liver failure, the removal of his gall bladder and innumerable surgeries.

“It was a difficult struggle,” Burson said. “I mean, I feel like I saw every operating room they have at Michigan Medicine. But through it all, my interactions with the nurses, the doctors and the support staff were just incredible.”

The team worked to keep his spirits up, and twice guided him through rehab — first after getting the artificial heart and then after receiving a heart and kidney transplant. They even helped him learn to walk again.

Is there an app for that?

While recovering from various surgeries proved to be a challenge, it was the daily interactions with faculty and staff that sparked innovation.

“One day, Mark had an itch on his back, and tried communicating that with staff,” said Chandu Vemuri, M.D., FACS, assistant professor of vascular surgery and chair of the CVC Innovation Program. “But he had a breathing tube in so he couldn’t speak at the time. Employees thought he was trying to take the tube out, so they restrained him.”

Once the team figured out what was needed, the mix-up got Burson, former CVICU clinical nursing director Lori Laczynski and CVICU technician Shelly Greene thinking.

“We had identified a problem, and immediately started brainstorming ways to solve it,” Burson said. “With the help of Lori and Shelly, an app came to mind. What if we created an app where patients — especially intubated patients — can identify exactly what they need and communicate that with staff?”

Up to the challenge

Laczynski, who is no longer with Michigan Medicine, knew the idea was a perfect fit for the CVC Innovation Program, which is a partnership between the Cardiovascular Center and Fast Forward Medical Innovation. She suggested that Burson attend a design thinking lunch program to learn more about it.

The innovation program has two main components — an educational component, where problems are identified and ideas are pitched. Then there is a design and thinking course, which takes people from the idea phase to a solution. After attending both, the FCVC’s innovation program provided continuous support through the Aikens Innovation Academy, training and mentoring to help Mark learn about customer discovery, prototyping and then to create a winnable pitch.

Specialists, administrators, faculty members, med students and clinicians helped at every step in the process.

“For each idea, we need to do discovery, which means we find out if there actually is a widespread problem that needs to be solved,” said Vemuri, who helps run the program. “After talking with other providers, patients and staff, we found that Mark’s problem clearly was not an isolated concern.”

More team members then stepped in to come up with a prototype app and refine it.

Finding a way to give back

The whole process led up to one big day.

“Every year, the FCVC program has an Innovation Challenge, where innovators can pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges,” Vemuri said.

In 2019, Burson’s project was chosen as the winner.

“To earn funding, that was one of the best things to happen to me in a long time,” Burson said. “It was just a remarkable feeling and gave validation to everything we had worked for.”

Since that day, the wireframe for the app has been developed, and soon, it will be ready to launch at Michigan Medicine — and beyond.

“Once I got out of the hospital, I had been looking for ways I could give back,” Burson said.

Toward that end, he now serves as an Office of Patient Experience patient advisor in cardiac rehab and on the Institutional Falls Committee. That’s all in addition to his team’s innovation project.

“Michigan Medicine had given me so much, and I wanted to help them in a similar way, ” Burson said. “This has given me a purpose. I know that I’ll be helping patients for years to come get the care they need and deserve.”