Hacking tech to bring healthcare to the world
Australian scientist David Putrino mixes physiotherapy, neuroscience and technology to develop low-cost healthcare solutions that are easily accessible for under-served people around the world. He has helped design prosthetic arms for refugees in war-torn South Sudan and developed affordable virtual reality rehabilitation devices that can be purchased online.
Article by Matthew Hall for Australia Unlimited
Things can move fast when David Putrino is hit with an idea. Originally from Perth, Western Australia, Putrino’s official job title is Director of Rehabilitation Innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System. In other words, Putrino uses technology to bring simple and affordable healthcare solutions to people around the world and – importantly – inspire others to do the same.
Putrino’s work with Not Impossible Labs saw an idea to provide prosthetics to a war-ravaged village in South Sudan become a reality. A mutual friend suggested Putrino meet Mick Ebeling, the American founder of Not Impossible Labs, and it was this meeting that set Putrino on a journey to bring low-cost medical solutions to people with disabilities.
Technology to help humanity
Putrino and Ebeling met for a dawn coffee in Manhattan where the American told Putrino about Daniel, a 14-year-old South Sudanese refugee who had lost his arms when his village was bombed during the civil war. With no arms, Daniel considered himself a burden on his family with no meaningful future.
That same morning, Ebeling booked Putrino on a plane to Not Impossible Lab’s Los Angeles headquarters. Putrino joined a team designing the prosthetics that would eventually be created on a 3D printer in Daniel’s South Sudan village. When Daniel received his prosthetic arms, the outcome changed his life and revolutionised how people in similar situations could improve their own lives.
“Not Impossible Labs taught locals how to build the arms and set up a self-sustaining prosthetics clinic,” Putrino explains. “Project Daniel disrupted the space. Nine months after we made Daniel’s prosthetics, there were a whole bunch of prosthetists printing 3D arms that were far superior to ours.”
Project Daniel was subsequently listed in TIME Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2010’, and Putrino is now a key part of Not Impossible Labs where his official job title is ‘Chief Mad Scientist’.
“I’m really proud of the work with Not Impossible Labs,” Putrino says.
“We design technology for the sake of humanity. What we do is come across a problem that shouldn’t exist and disrupt it even if we don’t always have the ultimate solution.”
Affordable care for everyone
Putrino’s day job is very much about solutions. At Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, his role is to discover technology startups and assist in developing products that will make the delivery of healthcare more efficient and effective. Putrino’s projects include mobile apps for suicide prevention, lung disease detection, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, as well as rehabilitation robotics and virtual reality (VR) devices.
At Mount Sinai, Putrino also drives a project that combines rehabilitation processes traditionally used for elite athletes with the needs of non-athletes – regular people recovering from injury. High-performance athletes usually benefit from specialised care paid for by their employers, often professional sports teams and organisations, which are out of reach for civilian patients.
“We are trying to find a cost-effective way to bring the personalised care that high-performance athletes enjoy to our patients, so that they can benefit from therapy tailored specifically to them,” Putrino says.
Accessible tech to improve patient care
A key to that success is in hacking technology originally intended for other uses and using it for patient rehab.
“Most of the devices I want to work with have to pass the Amazon Prime test,” says Putrino. “It is technology I can get by clicking on a website and having it delivered in two days. Typically, it is cheap and highly accessible.”
Putrino says accessibility is the key to technology playing a successful role in medicine. It’s a philosophy that guides his work with Not Impossible Labs as well as at Mount Sinai.
“If I only have 10 devices for seven million stroke survivors, well, that’s not really going to change the face of stroke rehab,” Putrino says. “But if I find a solution that allows us to download software and for a [cost-effective] device, we’re now talking about something millions of people can access and something that be disruptive.”
Putrino cites the development of rehab devices that harness VR technology as a perfect example of his work.
“Anyone who has a smartphone and Google Cardboard, which costs about $10 on Amazon, can access VR,” Putrino says. “So we’re building repositories for pain control and putting them on YouTube. Patients just need a phone, YouTube and Google Cardboard to access VR.”
Education that can inspire
Putrino holds a Bachelor of Science (Physiotherapy) from Curtin University in Western Australia and a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Western Australia. He credits that education with opening doors to a research pathway that took him to Harvard Medical School, MIT and New York University in the United States.
“I feel very strongly about the education I received in Australia,” he says. “It was inexpensive and high- quality and allowed me to go to university without accumulating an enormous amount of debt. Debt would have limited my options to pursue further study, which would have limited my options to take risks with my career.”
Putrino says medical technology will play an important role in the immediate future as broader medical advances contribute to a rapidly ageing population. Delivering care to increasing numbers of people living with diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as stroke survivors, means reimagining how care is delivered.
“Projections suggest that by 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 is going to triple,” Putrino says. “That is a scary projection and we are already seeing strain. But technology, for example, can help us get five stroke survivors online at the same time to play a video game together and be watched by a therapist.”
Although his workspace is centred on technology, Putrino says his motivation is solidly in human experience. He says a “crazy idea” is to create an inspiring reality TV series about physical rehab.
“The amount of grit you see in an 85-year-old to get back home and regain personal independence, the drama involved in that, is as high stakes as it gets,” he says.
“The strength you see in people who are placed in that situation is inspiring. Let’s highlight them and put them on a pedestal. They are just as amazing as someone running the 100 metres in the Olympics.”
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