The Value of Professional Clinical Feedback in Product Innovation and Evolution

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By Robert “Bob” Radocy

We in the prosthetics industry are very lucky--some could say "blessed"--to operate in a profession that has both financial and altruistic rewards. Our profession attracts health professionals, caregivers, and individuals of many other disciplines, who in most cases seek rewards from their profession that go well beyond a paycheck.

We are responsible for helping to rebuild people's lives. This is a lofty challenge, and the successful outcomes that we experience help many of us maintain our energy, focus, and dedication.

Clinicians: Valuable Resource

In addition, we have within our profession a vast resource of knowledge and experience that can be invaluable in helping to develop and improve products. The doctors, therapists, prosthetists, technicians, and other related healthcare providers can be among the rehabilitation engineer's and medical product manufacturer's most valuable assets. The folks in the trenches, dealing with the challenges of day-to-day fittings, adjustments, and training have a unique insight based upon practical, first-hand physical experiences with products that designers and manufacturers may lack. The manufacturers and designers need to pay attention, remain open-minded, and, more importantly, nurture the exchange of information and "feedback" with these professionals regarding our product development efforts.

Feedback Evolves ADEPT Line

An excellent example of how these types of exchanges can lead to improved products and innovation occurred in the last year within the TRS Inc. team. Since its inception, TRS has utilized the knowledge of consumer patients for product ideas. Prosthetists and, in particular, therapists have provided important ideas on how to improve our products and to help us discover new product niches. The evolution of the ADEPT product line in the early 1980s was the direct result of feedback from occupational therapists encouraging TRS to develop the first-ever pediatric line of voluntary closing prehensors.

Improving the ALPHA

This spring at the Association of Children's Prosthetic-Orthotic Clinics (ACPOC) conference, a discussion with some clinic personnel friends ensued regarding our ALPHA Infant Hand, which had been on the market about one year. The ALPHA was conceived as an entry-level prosthetic aid for very young children. It featured a thumb that was physically molded and attached to the index and long finger, creating an elastic aperture that could be used to teach the value of holding age-appropriate objects. The ALPHA actually came with a pacifier accessory that snapped into the opening created by the thumb. The product was embraced by a number of clinics immediately and proved to be a valuable alternative to some of the other product concepts available for this age group of congenitally limb-deficient children.

ALPHA Comparison #1 and ALPHA Comparison #2 illustrate the original ALPHA design (model on the left) and the revised ALPHA (model on the right). The new design allows for the grasping of a much wider range of objects, increasing its versatility.
ALPHA Comparison #1 and ALPHA Comparison #2 illustrate the original ALPHA design (model on the left) and the revised ALPHA (model on the right). The new design allows for the grasping of a much wider range of objects, increasing its versatility.

The feedback from our friends at the clinic was that the ALPHA might have even greater versatility if the thumb was released from the fingers, providing an opportunity to grasp a much wider variety of objects. This suggestion would require a tooling change, but after some more discussion and thought, TRS decided to evaluate the idea further. We looked at the design and materials along with the possible ramifications of such a change. Satisfied that we could continue to manufacture a reliable, safe product, we took on the challenge and revised the ALPHA's design.

The results of testing some clinical prototypes were very positive, and the ALPHA has been formally revised into its new configuration. Without that clinic's valuable feedback, the manufacturer might not have explored and implemented this improved product design.

Forums for Improving Products

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here that our profession can capitalize on. Maybe on a regular basis at one of the national prosthetic conferences, a forum for such product improvement and innovation discussions can be created. Designers and manufacturers can sit down with clinic personnel and open-mindedly brainstorm about different technology. ACPOC as a group has fostered such forums in the past at pre-conference workshops. Each workshop has had a particular focus for discussion, such as upper-limb prosthetics, lower-extremity prosthetics, etc. These appear to have been useful. Maybe the American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists or the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA) can use this ACPOC workshop model as a concept for fostering and encouraging even more interaction between various prosthetic professionals.

ACPOC will be co-conferencing with the Academy in 2005. It will be an excellent opportunity for a broad exchange of information that could potentially lead to more "Innovation." I'll look forward to seeing you there and listening to your suggestions.

Bob Radocy is president and CEO of TRS Inc., Boulder, Colorado. He is a prosthetic component designer and upper-limb amputee. He has been involved in the profession since 1979 and has made numerous contributions in the areas of both prosthetic product design and publications, including contributions to periodicals and books.