Medical College of Wis.: Newly Designed Folding Commode-Shower Wheelchair Can Dramatically Improve Lives Of Spinal Cord Injury Patients, the Elderly and Many Individuals with Disabilities

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A new folding, commode-shower wheelchair developed by Milwaukee and Tampa VA researchers, addresses a clear need of the more than 200,000 people with spinal cord injuries and other individuals with disabilities in the United States, most of whom require a special commode wheelchair for personal hygiene.

The wheelchair is the first commercial product collaboratively designed by researchers at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Milwaukee, and Tampa, and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. It address the serious problems of injuries and falls posed by current commode-shower wheelchairs while adding esthetic design and function that can significantly improve the quality of life for these and other wheelchair-bound patients.

The wheelchair’s development was funded by $230,000 in merit grants from the Merit Intramural Research Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC, and jointly patented with the Medical College of Wisconsin Research Foundation. A commercial version of the wheelchair will be displayed for the first time on Oct. 26, 2004, at the Medtrade show in Orlando. The wheelchair will be produced commercially by Activeaid, Inc., located in Redwood Falls, Minn.

According to Joseph Hill, Ph.D., director of the Medical College of Wisconsin Research Foundation, “This unique collaboration enabled the team to develop a useful product that

addresses need, function, and aesthetics. The last piece was an experienced technology transfer office to help identify an appropriate commercial partner and put in place a reasonable patent license agreement. This required managing expectations, bridging the designer’s vision and the company’s knowledge of the marketplace. So, with a little give and take, the well conceived, assistive device will be competitively priced.” “Current wheelchairs have serious problems that can contribute to significant health complications. Yet little design research focusing on this problem has been done until now,” says Pascal Malassigné, professor of industrial design at MIAD and the lead research industrial designer at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

A survey conducted by the design team revealed that 42 percent of veterans with spinal cord injuries consider the brakes on existing commode wheelchairs to be ineffective. More than 47 percent felt unsafe when transferring to a commode wheelchair and more than 35 percent reported one of more falls from commode-shower wheelchairs. Of those, more than 23 percent were hospitalized for between one month and four years from the fall.

These problems were brought to the attention of Prof. Malassigné by Audrey Nelson, R.N., Ph.D., director of the Patient Safety Center at Tampa VA Medical Center, who had been treating veterans with spinal cord injuries. Later, Prof. Malassigné and his design team rolled out prototypes of a folding wheelchair for use over a toilet and in the shower. Patients who tried the prototypes considered them far superior to their current wheelchairs. Ninety-five percent wanted one for home use and 89 percent would use them on trips. Joining Malassigné on the design team on this project were Dr. Nelson, at the Tampa VA Medical Center, and Robert P. Jensen, then industrial designer in the department of physical medicine & rehabilitation at the Medical College, and a MIAD instructor.

“For the more than 200,000 persons with spinal cord dysfunction in the United States and the countless other Americans living with a disability, this newly designed commode-shower wheelchair is a safe and dignified way to manage basic hygiene needs”, says Dr. Nelson, past president of the American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Nurses. “Designed to maximize patient independence and reduce caregiver strain, this new wheelchair will reduce falls and prevent pressure ulcers which were all too common in other commode-shower wheelchair designs”, she adds.

Activeaid has been manufacturing quality medical equipment since 1963, specializing in shower commode wheelchairs, bath chairs, and tilt chairs for the rehabilitation market. Their

products are designed in collaboration with clinicians, patients and caregivers. With 40 employees in Redwood Falls, and 40 sales representatives across the United States the company will use “just-in-time” manufacturing procedures to produce up to 40 commode-shower wheelchairs per week beginning in November 2004.

The wheelchairs will be distributed in Wisconsin by National Seating and Mobility, Inc., and Westhill Rehab from their locations in Appleton, Madison, Franklin, Oak Creek and Wauwatosa. Some of first wheelchairs will be placed in the Spinal Cord Injury Center of the Milwaukee and Tampa VA Medical Centers and the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. Froedtert is a major teaching facility of the Medical College.

Chip Nearing, Activeaid’s Vice President and COO, notes “This product is a tremendous opportunity for our company – it fits perfectly within our core business. We are pleased to help provide the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Medical College a return on their R&D investment.”

“It is fitting that the largest purchaser of the wheelchair will likely will be the U.S. government, through VA hospitals and Medicare reimbursements, which funded the wheelchair’s development,” Dr. Hill says.