No quarantine on innovation: Kellogg Eye Center, College of Engineering team up to design eye exam shield

April 1, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,
The new breath shield was designed, tested, manufactured and distributed in less than two weeks.

While COVID-19 is creating a number of unique and unprecedented challenges, the pandemic is sparking collaboration and innovation across Michigan Medicine. That’s certainly true for the work being performed by a team from the Kellogg Eye Center and U-M College of Engineering.

The group joined forces to create a new, larger breath shield that will help providers and patients stay safe.

Knowing that such a shield could have a positive impact on stunting the coronavirus’ trajectory, as well as lead to better infection prevention in the future, the team fast-tracked the project. In less than two weeks, they designed, tested, developed, manufactured and distributed 200 shields for Michigan Medicine facilities.

Analyzing the problem

Data from China and Europe indicates that eye doctors and technicians, as well as ear, nose and throat (ENT) providers are infected by the coronavirus at higher rates than colleagues in the same hospitals or clinics. As such, they can unwittingly become early spreaders of the disease. 

To reduce risk, Michigan Medicine postponed all non-critical examinations and procedures and consolidated the remaining cases still needing urgent care, such as retinal detachments, progressive macular degeneration and glaucoma, to the Kellogg Center. Ophthalmologists Paul Lee and Shahzad Mian looked for options to further stem the spread of coronavirus while caring for these patients. 

“The special microscope we use for eye exams require doctors or technicians to sit within two feet and at eye level with the patient. We are literally breathing in each other’s air,” said Lee, chair of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Kellogg. “To help with hygiene, some are equipped with plastic ‘breath shields,’ but in our pandemic era, they were too small to protect from aerosol transmission (droplets from the air) and already sold out at suppliers.” 

Engineering a timely and cost-effective solution

The doctors, along with Karen Ward, director of technician education and compliance liaison and Catherine Huebner, interim clinical administrator, turned to Lauro Ojeda, associate research scientist, at the College of Engineering. With the input from many at Kellogg, Ojeda, and his team, sketched a prototype and worked over the weekend to develop it.

“We modified the designs we found on the market for better protection,” explained Ojeda. “With access to the engineering school machine shops, we were able to design and develop the first prototype quickly.”

The following week, the university shut down, but that didn’t slow down the team. Former mechanical engineer undergrad student Phuoc Nguyen continued refining the drawings and Russ Miller, a mechanical engineer that works in the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, used equipment in his basement to complete the final prototypes. 

“To manufacture 200, we requested quotes from large health care suppliers but found they were both costly and took too long. We checked with local machine shops and found they could do it immediately and for half the price,” Ojeda said.

The team managed to distribute the shields to all Michigan Medicine eye clinic sites within days of that first planning meeting.

“In unprecedented times such as this, we look to ensure safe practices for our team members, while also improving existing standards,” Ward said. “This shield is the perfect example of improving standards for all of those working in ophthalmology. I am very proud to be part of a team that made this possible.”

Reaching out to community through discovery

Now that the design has proven to be effective at Michigan Medicine clinics, the team reached out to the health care community and made the shield template and specs available on the Michigan Medicine website so ophthalmologists and optometrists from around the world can download the information and make it locally.    

Based on feedback, the engineering team is designing a second generation shield, as well as a portable microscope. The Kellogg team has also identified other ophthalmology equipment needing protection.

“Ophthalmologists and ENT providers are on the front line of every bug that comes along, so added protection is critical.” Lee said. “The virus revealed an opportunity for us and we took that opportunity to improve our standard of protection. We doubled the size of the shields and expanded their use. Here at Michigan Medicine, we look at what is being done and make it better. This is why it’s great to be part of this institution.”