University of Minnesota: Demystifying congenital heart disease through product design

Congenital heart disease (CHD) is a physical heart defect that begins in the womb, affecting around 40,000 children born in the U.S. each year. Seeking to improve education for diagnosed children and their families, Amr El-Bokl and Gurumurthy Hiremath of the U of M Medical School partnered with the product design program at the College of Design. There, they collaborated with undergraduate student Levi Skelton and Assistant Professor Carlye Lauff to create a product for teaching children about CHD.

Varying from mild to severe cases, CHD can manifest in several different ways, from valve complications to an upside-down heart. These variations make the condition especially difficult for children and their parents to understand and manage, particularly as CHD patients age and become more independent.

“There is a tendency to try and protect children from information,” says El-Bokl. “This continues as they grow, then all of a sudden they’re leaving for college or starting their first job and have only a vague idea of their heart condition. Slow and early introduction is one of the best ways to become familiar with the medical information, but we don’t have many child-friendly tools.”

To help close that gap, El-Bokl and Skelton embarked on the design process journey to create a better educational tool for children and their parents.

Without any prior experience working with medical professionals or prior knowledge of CHD, Skelton dove headfirst into the project.

“I started by researching what CHD is, how it can manifest, be managed, and sometimes corrected. Dr. El-Bokl was both my client and mentor. While he was teaching me about CHD, he was also telling me what he wanted out of the product,” says Skelton.

Part of the learning and design process included an immersive, two-day experience volunteering at Camp Odayin, a residential summer camp for children with heart disease.

“My favorite part was seeing that these kids really aren’t much different from others,” Skelton says. “I had been researching CHD for a month and I had seen some kids in the clinic, but after being told the heart conditions these kids had, it was really cool to see them running around and having fun like any other kid.”

After conducting his research and speaking with a child life specialist, Skelton decided that an animal companion toy would be the most effective way to meet the project’s goals.

“Having children simulate a doctor/patient interaction with themselves and a toy has been proven to help children feel more comfortable as a patient during a visit to the doctor,” says Skelton. “Once I decided on creating a toy, I researched animals with unique hearts and chose the octopus because it has three of them.”

The plush octopus, named Octo, is designed with a removable, 3D-printed heart. It also comes with an accompanying digital app for kids to administer checkups and learn about cardiovascular functions.

Reflecting on the final prototype and its potential, Skelton sees a bright future for the continued collaboration between medical and design fields. “I think designers have a lot to bring to the medical field, especially for children,” says Skelton.

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