By Ann Kim
*Please note that this interview was conducted in August 2020.
Dr. Eric Richardson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University. He is a part of the COVID-19 Engineering Response Team at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, working on projects to address Duke Health’s identified clinical equipment needs.
Ann Kim: Can you tell me about what you’ve done as an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University and your area of research?
Eric Richardson: My area of interest or expertise is in the design of medical devices. I worked in the industry for several years at Medtronic, a medical device company, then taught for about five years at Rice University in Houston, and have been here at Duke for a couple of years.
All during that time, I’ve focused on either designing medical devices or teaching the design of medical devices. I’ve done device work in cardiac space, oncology, pulmonology, pediatrics — kind of all over the place. I don’t necessarily have a deep area of expertise in one specific focus area of medical devices, though I would say probably the cardiac medical devices if I had to choose one.
I tend to focus more on the process of innovation in medical devices and getting the right people together to innovate; usually, that’s an interdisciplinary team. I work closely with folks in business and medicine and engineering to be able to get the right mix of people to bring the device forward and have a clinical impact.
AK: How have you dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic through your occupation?
ER: When the pandemic was just starting, a few companies contacted me about helping them with design — mostly ventilators — because that was what we anticipated being needed. That led to more conversations at Duke, and we wanted to look at what was needed in the hospital here. Duke serves the larger Durham area and services most of the community here locally, so we got together a team of physicians and engineers and business people to assess the needs of the hospital.
There was a team that was put together called the COVID-19 Engineering Response Team. We got that team together and we looked at what the needs were, and then we started designing medical devices or finding medical devices that were being produced to meet the needs of hospitals.
It was very challenging, but a fun experience to be able to use biomedical engineering in a quick and needed way. We were able to produce things like face shields for [hospital] units and other things for the people right here in our town that we care about, that we want to protect.
And that continues to go on today. We’ve been spending the last four or five months doing that work, and it’s been very exciting. Lots of projects that we’re working on in that regard have to do with PPE [personal protective equipment] because that’s been the most needed here. But there are also other projects as well.
AK: On the website you sent to me before the interview, I found some examples of the work you do with the team. Could you explain a bit more about a couple of the projects that you are working on, such as the 3D surgical shield and the Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) Bridge?
ER: Melissa Eriksen, who’s a surgeon here at Duke, approached us with the idea of converting surgical helmets into a PAPR unit. They use these helmets very commonly in surgery when they’re doing things like knee replacements or hip replacements.
My colleagues and I created a manifold that would fit on the top of the helmet that could be 3D printed. And then we also gathered supplies from the hospital, filtration units, and tubing that could be found at Duke and designed a way to fit this manifold system onto the surgical helmet to provide a level of protection for providers. And so that was all done in a matter of a couple of weeks. We did quite a bit of testing on it. We got the appropriate approvals within Duke, and those are actually currently used in the hospital. So that’s important, as it was a quick innovation.
We tried to be very careful; a lot of people, I would say, are racing to innovate and don’t fully appreciate the complexities and risks involved with medical devices, so that’s very important to us. We try to do rigorous testing of any device and documentation. In some cases, we engage with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], and we try to be deliberate about what we’re innovating and how we’re innovating. But that was an example of something that we did early on that’s having an impact right now.
AK: On a slightly different note, how has COVID-19 affected your family or the way you interact with your family?
ER: I’m spending a lot more time with my family, which is great. My kids are here and well; they’re getting through their schooling and making it through together. So it has affected, I think, everyone’s way of life — spending much more time just here at home trying to get out. We’ve been doing a lot of hiking and some stuff out in nature, but staying away from groups and gatherings. And we do a lot of sports as a family.
It has affected us quite a bit, and our work as well: a lot of zoom meetings and a lot of work, just from home. But, I think we’ve been fortunate that the work that we’re engaged in is still moving forward, and it’s been good to have work to engage in over the last couple of months. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been comfortable. And I know many people have been affected much more. My thoughts are with them.
AK: How is the situation with the pandemic in Durham, North Carolina, where Duke is located?
ER: It’s good; it’s stabilizing. It’s a challenge. We thought we were kind of out of the worst of it back in April and May, but then it spiked again. And we’re kind of in that second spike right now. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but things are still as challenging as they’ve been before, so we’re not out of the woods yet. [There are] still in many cases here in North Carolina.
AK: What is something that you think people — specifically students — should know about COVID-19?
ER: I can’t comment on it, since I’m not a physician, but I believe what we’re encouraging at Duke for our students is just to be respectful and mindful of others and take the appropriate precautions. At Duke, we have what we’re calling “the Duke Compact,” where everyone commits to following certain policies and rules like wearing masks, socially distancing, and just being mindful of other people. I can’t comment on the disease itself because I’m not an expert in that area, but supporting the policies that Duke and our officials are putting forward.
AK: Finally, what do you foresee being some of the long-term effects of COVID-19?
ER: I will say from a medical device perspective with some confidence that there’s been an incredible amount of innovation in the medical device space to protect against pandemics. There are a lot of people innovating — some people that maybe shouldn’t be innovating — but a lot of people are in the space.
A lot of [the innovation] we’ve been seeing is in masks and PPE, which haven’t been touched much for many years. If you compare it to other areas of medicine, there’s been a lot less innovation. So I think there’s going to be a lasting impact on the innovation that’s happening in personal protective equipment, in some of our respiratory equipment, and other areas of healthcare related to respiratory illness and pandemics.
And there’s been an infusion of innovation that will be sustained over the next several years. At Duke, we have a teaching program that combines the School of Medicine, School of Engineering, and [School of] Business to help design health. It focuses on bringing together those groups and innovating in medicine.
So, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve done before, probably with more fervor than ever. We’re going to try and understand what the needs are in our hospital and then design and implement solutions to those needs. You can read about some of our planned projects on that engineering website, but I think a lot of what we’ve been focusing on lately are near-term designs and medical devices. Within the Duke BME [Biomedical Engineering] Department and in Duke Hospital and Duke University in general, there’s been traditional research in COVID that’s been translated into things like vaccines and therapies and how to care for patients, and that will continue as well. Within my world, we’ll focus on the near-term needs of equipment and how to innovate with regards to interventions.