Better ideas. Better outcomes.

Impact Statement 2018

LEARNING BY DOING The Story of an Innovations Intern

When Alissa Smith began her college studies, she wasn’t sure what kind of career she wanted to pursue. Now a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), she no longer has any doubts. Since joining the Spectrum Health Innovations team as an intern in May 2017, her path ahead is clear.

“I first learned about the internship opportunity from my engineering professor and adviser at GVSU, Professor John Farris,” Smith says. “After having a medical device project in Dr. Farris’ product design course, I knew that I wanted to pursue biomedical engineering. Working at Innovations has been extremely beneficial to get the hands-on experience while finishing my master’s degree.”

“I knew Alissa was right for this internship,” Farris says. “She was an undergrad in product design at that point, so she had a lot of the skills Spectrum Health Innovations wanted—she knew a lot more than just the technical part.”

Shabbir Choudhuri, director of the graduate program at GVSU, agrees. “When SHI described what kind of student they wanted for this internship—versatile, can cross boundaries, creative, has ideation capability, can work with little direction—I thought of Alissa. She was pursuing a combined degree in a 5-year program, so I knew her attributes made her a strong candidate.”

Spectrum Health Innovations agreed and put Smith to work on several projects. One of those projects became her thesis project, titled “Design and Testing of a Sheath Device to Secure Rotator Cuff Anchors in Osteoporotic Bone.”

Smith has been working with Kendall Hamilton, MD, orthopedic and sports medicine, Spectrum Health Medical Group, to design a device, called a gauntlet, bone sleeve, or sheath. Dr. Hamilton was the originator of the idea, and Smith became the designer and engineer.

“Rotator cuff disease is a common problem in the 40- to 60-year age group,” Dr. Hamilton says. “About 40 percent of people in that age group get a rotator cuff tear. A tear like that can cause pain when reaching, extending or lifting an arm, or just carrying things. It can cause significant pain at night, too, disturbing sleep.”

Repairing such a tear is a common surgery, with the surgeon sewing the torn tendon back to the bone, then using a suture anchor to keep it in place.  Seems simple enough, but that same age group often suffers from another condition—osteoporosis or osteopenia.

“That means the bone has become soft,” Smith explains. “It can disintegrate during surgery, or it’s just too soft to hold the anchor in place.”

The result, Dr. Hamilton says, is that repairs to the rotator cuff fail 20 to 60 percent of the time. The tendon may not heal, or it tears again, or the suture anchor doesn’t hold in the too-soft bone. Surgeon and intern put their heads together to design a solution.

“I designed a sheath that changes configuration to provide fixation in soft bone. For patients that need a revision surgery, the sheath will also serve as a solution.”

“The sheath will decrease re-tears and cuff failure,” Dr. Hamilton says. “We will be testing it on bone models with suture anchors, with a plan for filing for a patent.”

If the intern has learned a lot with her hands-on work alongside the surgeon, the surgeon says he has learned from the intern. “She taught me how to think outside the box,” Dr. Hamilton says. “Alissa helped me see in three dimensions and to think through how we would test it. She brought energy to our team and kept us motivated.”

The rotator cuff sheath was not Smith’s only project at SHI. She has also worked on a drop box for lab specimens that will ensure patient privacy and resists tampering. On that, she partnered with Nick Rambow, MLS (ASCP), MS, lab manager, Spectrum Health.

“Alissa was ready and onboard with our project,” Rambow says. “We had an initial conversation, and from that, she came up with an innovative concept. It’s being marketed now.”

“Working at Spectrum Health Innovations has given me such valuable experience working with clinicians, physicians, surgeons, engineers, and in business roles,” Alissa says. “I’ve really enjoyed being part of a team that takes ideas from clinicians and makes them into real health care products.” 

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perspectives
  • “Working at Spectrum Health Innovations has given me such valuable experience working with clinicians, physicians, surgeons, engineers, and in business roles. I’ve really enjoyed being part of a team that takes ideas from clinicians and makes them into real health care products.”

    Alissa Smith, Spectrum Health Innovations intern, graduate student in biomedical engineering at Grand Valley State University (GVSU)
  • “She taught me how to think outside the box. Alissa helped me see in three dimensions and to think through how we would test it. She brought energy to our team and kept us motivated.”

    Kendall Hamilton, MD, orthopedic and sports medicine, Spectrum Health Medical Group

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