Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Working together to improve healthcare technologies

Published: 1 December 2020
Infographic to present user voices
Infographic to present user voices in the development of future prosthetics. Credit: Chantel Ostler

The central South of England is a hub of fresh ideas, creative thinking and an integrated network of clinicians, academics, industry and patients working together to develop new health technologies that help build stronger bones, heal fractures more effectively, replace lost limbs and enhance patient recovery.

At a meeting of FortisNet and SIGHT, two organisations working to change people's lives for the better through collaborative research and product development, the South’s leaders in musculoskeletal and prosthetic research, technology and clinical care spoke about the need to involve patients in all aspects of research and development, new research opportunities and how more investment is needed in the area to meet the growing need of an ageing population.

Research opportunities

An ageing population brings a number of healthcare challenges, especially in musculoskeletal health. The burden of age-related disease and injury is rapidly rising and having a detrimental impact on people’s quality of life and increasing the costs of healthcare.

However, research opportunities in the South mean that the area is well-placed to make a significant contribution to this burden, as outlined by Professor Peter Smith, Director of FortisNet.

FortisNet has funded 53 new industry collaborative projects over the past five years, contributed support to 12 PhD studentships, helped develop two patent technologies and supported the formation of two spin-out companies.

Professor Smith said: “This is a very collaborative network. We are building a community – our investments are leading to larger outputs. What has been amazing is that from our funding, we have seen an 18-fold return on investment, which has been directed back into research and innovation.”

However, he warned that regulatory processes continue to prohibit progress and investment was needed in the South for it to be able to face healthcare inequalities and life expectancy challenges, which are also seen in the north of the country.

He said: “The south’s researchers need to come together to show government that they need to invest in the health of our regional populations. Many solutions to keep the NHS better budgeted will be through med tech and data, which both SIGHT and FortisNet are at the forefront of. We need to be able to bring our technology into the application space for it to be able to benefit society.”

Professor Smith also highlighted two new hospitals, which are to be built in Bournemouth and near Basingstoke. The Basingstoke site will have an associated health and innovation campus and will offer significant opportunity for new research avenues for universities and SMEs.

“Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment is being put into this,” Professor Smith told the meeting. “The University [of Southampton] is engaged in it and we are hoping we will be able to bring SMEs in, to assist in conceptualising this because we really want to create a med-tech centre in the Wessex region that can become a nucleus for the country as a whole. We have all the elements we need to do this, we just need the will and the investment.”

3D-rendered view of arm muscles - Dr X Yang, Bournemouth University
3D-rendered view of arm muscles - Dr X Yang, Bournemouth University

A region of expertise

Other exciting research areas were shared in the meeting, proving that the Wessex region has a wealth of expertise from different institutions working together in an interdisciplinary way, to move the field forward.

Professor Gordon Blunn discussed SIGHT’s ambitions in developing prosthetic devices, in particular osseointgrated prostheses, where a device is directly anchored into the skeleton, to which an artificial limb can then be attached.

Additionally, Professor Jian Zhang from the Bournemouth University spoke about how computer animation, immersive technology such as virtual reality and AI can offer new and interesting approaches to designed prosthetics.

An update was also given from the Portsmouth Technologies Trials Unit, which supports the design, set up and delivery of clinical research studies focusing on healthcare technology and devices as well as working with small to medium sized businesses.

Image Credit: Nate Maabuag Koalaa Ltd.
Alex Lewis testing Nate Macabuag’s first bionic hand. Koalaa Ltd.

Patient perspective is key

Speakers throughout the event discussed the importance and significance of involving patients throughout the development, design and implementation process of health technology. Their involvement can make the difference between a project’s success or failure, the meeting was told.

Alex Lewis is a quadruple amputee and has worked with FortisNet for four years. He is a passionate advocate for the importance of involving the user in the development of new technologies. He spoke about his experiences working with Nate Macabuag, founder of Koalaa Prosthetics. When Nate was a student at Imperial College, he pledged to build Alex the “best bionic hand you’ve ever seen.” But when Alex tried it on nine months later, he couldn’t use the hand to do simple tasks such as hold a pen or glass of wine. 

“It was a humbling experience,” Nate told the meeting. “We should’ve asked his detailed opinion on the device at the beginning. Asking the user about every single step and listening critically to what they want, will enable us to develop a product which is really useful to the user.”

Image credit: Nate Macabuag, Koalaa Ltd.
Second prosthetic hand designed to Alex’s requirements. Koalaa Ltd.

Alex added: “I wanted something that was affordable and comfortable that would allow me to do specific tasks. In the end, we developed a soft shell prosthetic that had attachments on it which allowed me to do things like sign my name.”

After working with Alex, Nate applied for funding through student competitions and launched spin-out company Koalaa Prosthetics, which develops soft upper limb prostheses and a virtual service that aims to address the limitations of artificial prosthetics. Koalaa has now supplied more than 100 people with prosthetic limbs. “It’s not my engineering brain, which is the only important thing,” Nate said. “It’s the small things that are impactful to the user, which really matter. It’s the child being able to hold an ice lolly on a summer’s day – that’s the real impact. And you will only know about that by talking to the end users.”

Image credit: Nate Macabuag, Koalaa Ltd.
Alex Lewis wearing the Koalaa soft shell prosthetic. Koalaa Ltd.

The importance of patient involvement was echoed by Chantel Ostler, a clinical academic from Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust and an Institute for Life Sciences PhD student, who discussed the challenges being faced in a patient’s rehabilitation following an amputation.

Chantel reported the findings from the People Powered Prosthetics research group’s 2019 Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement project, which asked prosthetic users, family members, clinicians, designers and academics about the challenges they face and what improvements could be made.

Comfortable sockets were highlighted as something that is crucial, alongside prosthetics needing to be easy to clean and breathable. Adjustable and personalised prosthetics were something patients wanted to see as well as receiving rehabilitation in their own environments. The findings have been made into an infographic to help inform more people of the results.

Chantel told the meeting: “Real world solutions are desperately needed to improve everyone’s experiences. We need to be able to share these priorities [the 2019 Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement project findings] across the field to help expand research and improve product development and service design.”

The future is bright

The strength of the region within the field of health technologies was demonstrated through the varied work taking place. But there is still a need for the region to be better known to policy makers in Whitehall to ensure proper investment is given to the area, the meeting was told.

The meeting closed with a pledge from Professor Peter Smith that SIGHT and FortisNet would continue to drive this agenda forward and a meeting would be set up to ensure discussions continued.

Notes for editors

FortisNet is based at the University of Southampton and aims to develop and deliver better musculoskeletal treatments, increasing the speed to market of musculoskeletal focused technology and training the next generation of scientists. 

Supporting Innovation and Growth in Healthcare Technologies (SIGHT) is a business support programme developed by the University of Portsmouth to provide help and guidance to small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in the healthcare technology sector. 

Privacy Settings