Enterprising art students invent concept that could slash per-patient medical waste

“All single-use devices are thrown out. What if they could follow the patient?” That simple and cogent observation from a paramedic in Northern Ireland inspired two students at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin to invent the Personal Patient Pack (PPP), which has the potential to reduce waste by 67% per hospital patient. The PPP is now a national winner for Ireland in the 2019 James Dyson Award competition and will go on to compete in the international stage.

Currently, when paramedics transport a patient to a hospital, a number of devices such as face masks and nasal tubes are used. When the patient is admitted, the devices are disposed of and often replaced with identical new devices. This process can be repeated multiple times as the patient moves through the hospital’s ecosystem, creating an unnecessary amount of plastic waste.

With the PPP developed by Hannah Grogan and Máire Kane, the devices initially used by the patient in the ambulance follow him or her throughout the medical journey. Here is how Grogan and Kane described the innovation in their submission to the Dyson awards.

“Patient details are taken by the paramedic on the iPad. The pack is scanned using an RFID reader attached to the iPad. Details are sent to the hospital in real-time. Upon arrival at A&E [the accident and emergency wing of the hospital], a verbal handover between paramedic and A&E nurse is performed. The PPP is passed over to A&E. Staff can refer to the patient records on the iPad/Work Station on Wheels. The PPP can be ‘swiped’ with an RFID reader. When the patient is discharged from hospital, the contents of the pack are either recycled (plastics) or sent for sterilization (scissors). The PPP itself is placed in the general laundry container. The laundry is collected as part of the existing system in place. Upon exiting the hospital door, the tags on the PPPs [are] deactivated by the existing RFID system.”

Personal Patient Pack, national winner in 2019 Dyson awards

Patient safety is the prime directive in the healthcare sector, and that is why single-use plastic devices have become ubiquitous in hospital settings, and it is also why a considerable amount of packaging waste is generated. “First, do no harm” understandably trumps environmental edicts in the medical space. The PPP squares that circle in an effective way, first by ensuring that the devices remain connected to the patient through the technology described above, but also through careful consideration of product design. 

On the advice of the head of procurement at St. James Hospital in Dublin, the students fabricated the PPP from a white polycotton fabric so that any dirt would be immediately identifiable. The adjustable strap is sturdy and designed for ease of use and quick release. Black arrows clearly communicate to healthcare personnel how to open the pack, and embroidered icons indicate devices that should not be included in the PPP.

Grogan and Kane have received €2,200 prize money from the James Dyson Foundation for winning the national award, and their invention now goes on to the international stage of the competition. A shortlist of 20 finalists, as determined by Dyson engineers, will be announced on Oct. 17, and the international winner will be revealed on Nov. 14. The international program is open to design engineering students with the stated objective of inspiring the next generation of design engineers.

Whether or not Grogan and Kane receive the ultimate accolade from the Dyson Foundation, they have already made inroads bringing their invention to the marketplace. They are in discussion with Enterprise Ireland, which would like to turn their project into a business, according to the students, and they are also in communication with the Ellen MacArthur Trust from a sustainability perspective. “We know that sustainability is not considered with high importance in healthcare,” noted Grogan and Kane in their competition submission form. “It is our responsibility to spread the message of our project to really get healthcare bodies to start thinking differently in order to create a positive environmental change.”

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