Back to the Future: Ford, Sprint & KU Students Bring the House Call to the 21st Century

wellcar-sketch-232x300It’s Back to the Future, telemedicine style. The doctor with his black bag of remedies and devices knocking at your door for a house call is an old idea. But a tricked-out, high-tech ride brings a fresh, 21st century twist to that form of healthcare. Add the brains of University of Kansas students to resources and technology from Ford, Sprint and others: You get one very promising (and literal) mobile health solution for rural medicine. WellCar combines telemedicine, miniaturization and the concept of the country doctor’s house call to get underserved patient populations high-quality and timely healthcare.

Some Kansan counties don’t even have doctor in their borders, Greg Thomas, professor of design and director at KU’s Center for Design Research, said. He said he estimates Kansas would need only about three WellCars to sufficiently serve its rural patient population. Aboard the futuristic craft? Nurse practitioners, miniaturized medical devices, tablets and a strong dose of telemedicine. With these strategies, it not only solves for the patients’ need for medical care in these areas, but also for the doctor shortage.

But the WellCar isn’t just another mobile wellness clinic. The nurse practitioners would have the tech to offer comprehensive preventative medicine–like a fully functioning medical office on wheels. It’s high-touch and high-tech.

The project isn’t creating new medical technology, but rather bundling the most cutting edge tech and bringing it to patients who would otherwise go without, rely on ambulatory services or need to drive hours to a medical center or hospital.

The idea stemmed from a class project at KU’s Center for Design Research, which often coordinates with Ford. Now that the idea has gone well beyond the scope of a semester, some students have elected to make this their thesis project and new ones will join the WellCar team next semester. It essentially proves the benefits of an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to healthcare. Auto manufacturers and an anthropology major, electrical engineers-to-be and global communications companies–unlikely pairings make for creative ideas.

The Ford Transit Connect Wagon provides the basic design structure for the WellCar. Ultimately, Thomas said, the WellCar will be highly modular, so healthcare practitioners can add and omit devices and tech from the vehicle as necessary. If she knows on her route there will be three patients with diabetes and one with cancer, for instance, the inside of the car may look very different from an NP with mostly heart failure patients. The trend of miniaturization of medical devices is key to this design.

“There are going to be specific needs for each patient that the healthcare practitioner visits,” Thomas said.

Sprint is providing a mobile WiFi hotspot for the WellCar.

“Without a solid, good connection to these rural parts of Kansas, we don’t have a project,” Thomas said. He said people from Sprint actually drove to the Colorado border, mapping where the connections fell off and could be improved.

Because of expense and the need to treat while in remote areas, telemedicine help from Voalte would allow for them to connect with medical centers for a doctor’s consultation. Expedited test results, like those from Abbott (ABT) Point-of-Care blood tests, expedite the process.

But the KU students aren’t just benefiting from these companies. The collaboration means the companies get information about how the products can be modified for optimal use and study how they function in the field, meanwhile, gathering smart students’ research and innovative design ideas. The team is on the lookout for medtech and mobile health solutions partners who want to join this collaboration. (See image below for full list of groups already helping with the project.)

“We do believe it’s going to be a reality,” Thomas said. The KU Transportation Research Institute and School of Architecture, Design and Planning currently fund the project. He said the team hopes to have a prototype in 2014, and will apply for grants with the NIH and NSF that fall.

If all goes well and they receive funding in 2014, he said he wants to see WellCars “on the streets” (or, perhaps more accurately, back roads) in 2015.

WellCar and its current collaborators, which include KU Medical Center, Ford, Voalte, Abbott Point-of-Care and Sprint, among others

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