Innovation

Occupational therapist brings comfort to tiny patients

As a pediatric occupational therapist, Karen Lee helps our smallest patients overcome development issues that can impact their quality of life. This can include supporting young people with hand-eye coordination and grasping skills.

About seven years ago, Karen, who is with OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois, identified a need to create special splints for infants and toddlers with increased muscle tone in their hands. A child with this complication keeps their hand in a tightly fisted position with their thumb tucked into their palm. This causes a shortening of muscles and reduces the functionality of the hand over time.

“Infants notoriously pull their tiny hands out of traditional hand splints, and many tend to hit themselves with the hard material,” Karen said. “I got creative with some neoprene material to fabricate soft resting hand splints for our patients.”

These hand splints allow a child’s hand to rest in an open position with the thumb outside the palm in a comfortable way. This provides opportunities for the muscles to be in a lengthened position, improving flexibility. The splint is also used to support children with hand contractures, a loss of movement in a muscle or joint.

Over the years, Karen has taught other pediatric occupational therapists to make soft hand splints for infants and toddlers. Now, she is working with OSF Innovation to build outside interest in her idea.

‘Not patentable doesn’t mean it’s not innovative’

There are other companies making soft splints for children, but off-the-shelf options are limited to thumb and wrist supports that occupational therapists can pull for their patients.

Splints typically must be custom-made based on hand measurements. Often times, insurance doesn’t cover the expensive price tag, leaving out-of-pocket costs for families. And many of these commercial splints don’t function quite the same as Karen’s concept.

“The splint I created works very well for our smaller patients,” she said. “While it keeps their hand in an open position like a traditional hard resting hand splint, it does not require the fingers to be strapped down. The child has a degree of active movement that they can engage in to open their hand more fully, but the splint limits them from tightly clenching their fist.”

When Karen learned about the opportunity to bring her idea to the Office of Innovation Management (OIM), she jumped at the chance.

“I’ve had many fieldwork students and colleagues tell me I should patent this,” Karen said. “And I felt like moving forward with this idea was just part of being obedient to what God has called me to do.”

Karen’s ultimate goal is to mass-produce pre-fabricated, sized soft hand splints that can be easily given to families without waiting for custom-made products. She is working with the OIM to determine the next steps.

“Karen’s idea likely is not patentable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not innovative,” said Meghan Brignadello, a project assistant with the OIM. “We’ve seen the impact her concept has made on the lives of the young individuals we serve. We believe this is something other institutions and their patients can potentially benefit from.”

An easy process

Karen said the process of submitting her idea was easy and straightforward. In fact, she has pitched several ideas to the OIM that are in varying stages of development.

“It has been encouraging to share my ideas with the team, receive feedback and get validation about the usefulness of my concepts,” Karen said. “I’m excited about the prospect of sharing these innovations with other hospital systems.”

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