2008 Winner: ASTech Special Award
Medical Care Driven By Patients’ Needs
What began as a common interest in the 1980s led Dr. John Wolfaardt and Dr. Gordon Wilkes to the epicentre of a revolution in head and neck reconstruction and rehabilitation.
“The impact on patients, functionally and psycho-socially when they have lost complete contents of their eye or half of their jaw is devastating. People would get their diagnosis and their world changed forever,” Dr. Wolfaardt says. “At the time the options for facial reconstruction were limited. It was frustrating for the patients and for us,” he adds.
Patients, who had lost significant parts of their faces had to endure the daily cumbersome and painful procedure of gluing facial prostheses onto their sensitive skin. “We knew something really different was needed,” recalls Dr. Wolfaardt, director of iRSM.
Advanced digital technologies have improved treatment through surgical simulation, and design and construction of prostheses and other devises. Instead of gluing their prosthesis onto their faces, patients now have the benefit of biomechanical implants that are anchored into their bone, including hearing devices. A whole range of technology was developed to enhance the use and performance of the devices.
“Patients who lived through the period prior to these technological advancements see how medical care is driven by their needs,” Dr. Wolfaardt says. “They say even if they can’t benefit from all of the outcomes of our newer developments, this creates hope for those who need it later on. That’s important to them.”
What iRSM has planned might sound like science fiction, but it’s real. Patients with a massive loss of tissue can look to a future when the planning and design of their reconstructive components is done in the virtual world. Their team of technicians and surgeons will have a plan that is designed specifically for the individual. Some parts will be built using regenerative medicine to generate tissue for the person.
“It’s personalized medicine,” Dr. Wolfaardt says. “We have the potential to provide people with outcomes we can’t even anticipate today.”
Dr. Wolfaardt says it’s not an accident that Alberta is at the helm of these important developments. “We work with really multidisciplinary activities, which we couldn’t undertake without the depth of talent in Alberta,” Dr. Wolfaardt says. “We work with people in surgery, engineering, rehabilitation medicine, computing science, graphic designers and industrial designers. Whatever it is, the infrastructure is such that we can usually find someone.” He adds that it is unusual to see the kind of collaboration he has encountered. As well, he credits the government of Alberta for having the vision to set up the test facility for patients, a precursor to iRSM.