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How to Reshape Medicine: Fund Physicians’ Ideas

Photo of a student working on a project
Photo of a student working on a project
Student performing a repair on Dr. Podolsky’s cleft palate simulator. (Photo: David Fisher)

Medical innovation saves money and lives. There are few fields where the value of bringing new ideas to market is so clear. One of the biggest challenges is that clinical physicians, who are in the best position to have game-changing insights, often lack the support network needed to turn a great idea into a scalable product with national or global reach.

It was with this in mind that the Canadian Medical Association launched their newest company, Joule, last year. Joule is unique in Canada. In addition to delivering cutting edge products and services to physicians, it is also a catalyst for physician-led innovation. “We want to help physicians bring innovations to market,” says CEO Lindee David. “Physicians are on the front lines. They see the gaps and challenges first hand, and they see the opportunities, too. They need to have a voice for innovation, but they can’t do it alone.”

A big part of Joule’s early work is the creation of $150,000 in grants awarded no-strings-attached to Canadian physicians looking to bring innovative medical solutions to market. I had the chance to speak with two of the inaugural grant recipients: Dr. Dale Podolsky, founder of Simulare Medical Corp, and Dr. Julielynn Wong, founder of 3D4MD.

3D4MD has designed and tested a solar-powered, plug-and-play, ultra-portable 3D printing system to manufacture a range of medical supplies at the point of use in remote communities. Designing this system to fit inside a carry-on suitcase allows safer handling of fragile parts and saves money by avoiding checked baggage fees (Photo: Richard Lautens)

From robotic surgeons to revolutionary surgical training tools

Dr. Podolsky is an engineer and plastic surgery resident whose big innovation came serendipitously while pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. “My PhD research thesis was to develop a robot to perform cleft palate surgery,” says Dr. Podolsky. “I began developing a simulator as a platform for improving the robot. When I started presenting my work, people were very interested in the simulator itself for the purposes of training.”

The simulator provides a highly realistic anatomical learning platform allowing surgeons to develop their skills in a low-pressure environment without putting patients at risk. “Cleft surgery is very challenging,” Dr. Podolsky explains. “There’s really no room for error.”

Dr. Podolsky is convinced that there are countless other physicians with great ideas just waiting to be incubated. “From a physician’s perspective, there are a huge amount of problems you face on a daily basis where you can think of solutions to make things better for yourself and the patient,” says Dr. Podolsky. “But it can be hard to find the avenue to bring those ideas to fruition and Joule really fills that gap.”

Bringing space medicine down to earth

Dr. Wong is a dual board-certified public health physician and aerospace medicine physician who has worked with NASA doctors to 3D print medical supplies on the International Space Station. She’s now bringing that idea closer to home. “I realized that using solar-powered 3D printers to make medical and surgical supplies to treat ill or injured astronauts on deep space missions can benefit people here on Earth,” says Dr. Wong. “There are five billion people on this planet who lack access to safe, timely, and affordable surgical care. Nearly 3.75 billion people live in rural areas and many of them face challenges in accessing healthcare.  And there are 1.4 billion people who lack access to electricity.”

Following research experiments at the Mars Desert Research Station in 2014, Dr. Wong was ready to apply these techniques on terra firma. “I came back to Toronto and built and tested an ultra-portable, plug-and-play solar-powered 3D printing system that you can take with you to a remote community and use to make low-cost medical supplies on site,” says Dr. Wong. “And you can teach the locals how to use it and leave it behind.”

Other countries look to Canada for inspiration, and that’s part of why it’s so important that we promote physician-led innovation here in Canada.

Dr. Wong insists that the real challenge for physician innovators is making their good ideas work on the commercial scale where they can actually change lives. “Ideas are easy, execution is hard,” she says. “That’s why I’m so appreciative of the Joule grant. It has given us not only the financial support but also the mentorship we needed to bring our physician-led health care innovations to Canadians and beyond.”

Global reach for Canadian innovation

These innovations are home-grown in Canada, but their potential benefit extends around the globe (and, in Dr. Wong’s case, above it). Medical science is an international pursuit and Canada is perfectly positioned to lead the way in improving the health of everyone worldwide. “Canadians may not realize the incredible credibility our physicians have beyond our borders,” says David. “Other countries look to Canada for inspiration, and that’s part of why it’s so important that we promote physician-led innovation here in Canada.”

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