Dr Andrew Cookson, a Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been working in partnership with clinicians at the Royal United Hospitals Bath (RUH) to develop a software tool that will help diagnose Pulmonary Hypertension at an earlier stage than is currently possible.
Pulmonary Hypertension is a rare but serious condition. Its symptoms are similar to those of the more common cardiovascular diseases making it difficult to diagnose, taking on average 2 years 2 months. Dr Cookson reflects on his partnership with the RUH.
How the project began
Dr Jonathan Rodrigues, a Consultant Radiologist at the RUH, had come across my research and contacted me to see if we might be able to work together to apply computational modelling to improve the diagnosis of Pulmonary Hypertension.
The aim was to develop a software tool that would help spot the condition earlier, leading to an improved quality of life for patients, more effective interventions, and lower treatment costs for the NHS.
Embedding knowledge exchange
The process of knowledge exchange was embedded into the project from the very beginning and throughout; driven by a real-world problem identified by a clinician, and leading to the co-creation of a prototype software tool with clinicians.
It is a partnership project; Dr Jonathan Rodrigues is one of the Principal Investigators, and so we have regular conversations and email exchanges, alongside monthly meetings that include others interested in Pulmonary Hypertension at the Hospital.
What is exchanged
The nature of our partnership is that both parties have expertise in different areas. We have the expertise in computational modelling, and the clinician partners have expertise in Pulmonary Hypertension and hospital systems and workflows.
I have had to really listen to the clinicians about what they need, and learn about the condition and the diagnostic workflow they use. I have also had to be able to explain my research in an understandable way so that together we can see how it can be applied to this problem.
What we have done so far
The first 6 months of the project were funded by the RUH’s Research Capability Fund and were mainly technical. I used the majority of the funding to hire a Post-Doctoral Researcher who would be solely focussed on this project. The fund also bought out some clinical time for Dr Rodrigues.
We then received funding from the University’s Impact Fund to collaborate with the end-users in developing a prototype. As part of that design process, we created a survey to find out what is useful to them, how they could use the tool, and how they would want the diagnostic information presented.
We have since received further funding from the RUH to work on the tool for another 6 months to add in more capability, as well as funding from the Impact Acceleration Fund to ensure that the tool is developed in line with regulations surrounding medical device software.
Why I chose to engage in knowledge exchange
What I have discovered is that it is so much easier to do good work if you’re tackling a problem that clinicians care about. Even as an Engineering Undergraduate, it was drilled into me that a fundamental part of doing design work is making sure you’re solving the right problem. That has always stayed with me.
We are trying to create technology and a product that will actually be used by hospitals. A fundamental part of doing that is understanding the needs and the resources that are available to the end-user, and what their current practice is.
The benefits of our knowledge exchange activities
Having developed this tool with this particular application in mind will benefit my research in the future because it can form the basis for other research projects; we can build on it and use it in other ways.
I think collaborating with clinicians to coproduce the tool has also opened up further funding opportunities for us. Our project is applied in nature and specific funds are open for that kind of work. Another benefit is that the more we talk with the clinicians the more ideas we spark for future research projects.
The benefit to our partners is that hopefully in the end they receive a tool that they can use, that has been developed in line with their needs and resources. The tool will help them to give better care to their patients and to lower treatment costs.
My top tips for knowledge exchange projects
When you’re working with a partner from outside the University it is important to recognise that their availability is likely to be different to yours. Try to keep the channels of communication open, get what you need in the time they have to give, and be prepared to do background reading to fill in gaps in your knowledge.
Plan for the unexpected. Working with an external partner does mean that you’re not in control of all the steps in the research process, and it can mean that things don’t run quite as smoothly as you might like. We experienced a bottleneck in receiving anonymised data from the hospital. Next time I would try to mitigate for potential backlogs and be sure to ask sufficient questions to understand their processes fully.