Jan. 21, 2019

How can we improve emergency department wait times? UCalgary student team creates award-winning answer

Medical entrepreneurs flourish thanks to our innovation ecosystem and events like Health Hack

Overcrowded emergency departments are a significant and complex health challenge. Hospitals in Canada and around the world often cope with more patients than they can treat in a reasonable timeframe.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the national average for seeing a doctor after showing up at an emergency room is 3.1 hours. The situation in Calgary is only slightly better than average. Recently a group of student researchers at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) entered a competition to create a new approach for responding to the problem. It turns out, they’ve got a winner.

Julia St. Amand, Sonia Martins, Mariam Keshavjee and Abdullah Sarhan didn’t know each other before participating in Innovation 4 Health’s student-run Health Hack competition. The six-week competition, with $20,000 in awards at stake, concluded with a 72-hour hardware hackathon on campus and one-minute product pitch and demo event. The four students were brought together by a desire to answer a simple question: “Can you design a new tool to help improve emergency department access block?”

They worked with health-care professionals and technical experts, including Dr. Eddy Lang, MD, the head of the Department of Emergency Medicine, who initially presented the challenge to the team.

The student team came up with software that tracks clinical and operational data in real-time. The software works on a phone, tablet and other devices. It’s designed to help emergency department managers focus resources and help reduce emergency room wait times.

The student team went up against 19 teams during the Health Hack, each solving a different health-care challenge. The innovative software dashboard was named the overall winner.

"They said our name and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Wait, did we just win?’" Julia says with a laugh. "This competition has been an immense learning experience. We're uncovering the entrepreneurial spirit of Calgary and meeting many amazing people along the way."

Entrepreneurial ecosystem offers boost

Like any students involved in the Health Hack, the team can continue working on their product and explore future commercial possibilities.

Elisa Park, health innovation manager at the CSM and the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, says UCalgary is building a health innovation pipeline through a network of programs, training workshops, competitions and other learning opportunities. These include the Health Innovation Program (HIP), an informal network of programs focused on growing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurial thinking for faculties conducting health research and education.

“There has been a swell of interest in the health innovation space from students, faculty and staff,” says Park. “The HIP connects existing groups so that we are working together, supporting innovators so they are able to plan a way forward.”

The network can include:

  • TENET i2C (innovation to commercialization), a competition for commercially viable health projects that provides training and mentorship. The winner is awarded $100,000. It’s open to students, faculty, trainees and staff.
  • Year-round access to world-class experts, entrepreneurs and programs through the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking.
  • The most sophisticated and scalable ventures can apply to join The Creative Destruction Lab Rockies, offering startup companies (in many business areas, not just medicine and health) access to mentors and experienced entrepreneurs with large networks.

Specialized opportunities

In some cases, entrepreneurial opportunities within the CSM are more specialized. The Early Cancer Detection Initiative offers up to $200,000 in grants to Principle Investigators (PI) to enhance existing cancer detection technology and encourage discovery of new technology. The program is operated through the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. At least one PI from the team applying must hold a faculty appointment at UCalgary.

The Ward of the 21st Century (W21C) is an initiative based in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Alberta Health Services. W21C hosts a biennial Innovation Academy where winners receive support to help expose their health innovation internationally. W21C also offers other support for innovators, specializing in human factors (using scientific methods to improve system performance and preventing accidental harm), clinical trials, digital health, and aging-in-place.

Last November, UCalgary announced it is opening a Life Sciences Innovation Hub. Located at the university’s Research Park, it will allow students, researchers, startups and companies to interact, create and explore new ideas in life sciences, including a dedicated wet lab and office space for companies that are developing and growing.