Students Have Transformative Experience Through Health Design Lab Research Fellowship
Eva Varotsis and Lauren Schlegel don’t hesitate when asked if their experience as Health Design Lab (HDL) Research Fellows will make them better physicians.
“Yes, 100%,” Varotsis says, “in every way.”
“I can’t even place a value on it,” Schlegel adds. “It gave me problem-solving skills that I carry with me every day.”
The pair just wrapped up a year-long stint at the HDL, becoming leaders in medical 3D printing and community health, presenting nationally and creating an extensive network in the Jefferson and Philadelphia communities. To date, they’re only the fifth and sixth University students to complete this unique and competitive HDL program.
“The Research Fellowship gives pre-med and medical students the resources, mentorship and a platform to focus on their areas of interest,” explains Dr. Morgan Hutchinson, director of education for the HDL. “Our fellows learn to apply important health design principles to patient care, academic research and medical education.”
Dr. Robert Pugliese, HDL co-founder and managing director, says he doesn’t know of another research fellowship that allows students to gain such expertise and advance the science of how better design can lead to improved health and health care.
In one of the signature projects, Varotsis and Schlegel developed and led Jefferson’s Vulnerable Community Mobile COVID-19 Vaccination Program and managed events providing 8,000 vaccines in Philadelphia’s underserved neighborhoods. Last year’s Vax Up Philly Parade, which cut across the city, saw dozens get vaccinated who likely wouldn’t have otherwise.
“It was such a great day,” says Schlegel, a fourth-year Sidney Kimmel Medical College student pursuing ENT surgery. “We had a lot of conversations and reached so many people.”
Creating accessible sites with multilingual staff proved critical to the vaccination program’s success, Varotsis says. “Community members told us, ‘This isn’t an experience we generally have in health care,’ and how important it was to them to know that Jefferson cares about them. We knew we could make a difference.”
Varotsis will start Sidney Kimmel Medical College this year after working in user experience, design and research in tech. The HDL fostered her love of human-centered design, and she quickly embraced medical 3D printing.
For example, Varotsis created an entire full-scale aorta model for Jefferson’s vascular surgery department in collaboration with Dr. Babak Abai. She also helped with the user-validation study for a toilet transfer assist device that earned the grand prize at the University of Minnesota’s Design of Medical Devices Conference Student Design Showcase.
“Health care is something that should always be improving based on the technology and practices we have and how we’re learning and growing culturally,” she says. “The Health Design Lab helped me to reframe all those things in my mind.”
Schlegel found her work in the HDL to be equally rewarding. For another project, she designed a low-cost 3D cricothyroidotomy trainer model with Dr. Richard Goldman in Jefferson’s otolaryngology department. This tool preps physicians to access the airway of a crashing patient through the neck when orotracheal intubation isn’t possible.
“It’s difficult to train for such a rare situation,” says Schlegel of the high-pressure procedure. “Many current models aren’t anatomically accurate, limiting how much simulation can help prepare physicians.”
Once she developed the model, the HDL and Jefferson’s head and neck surgery and emergency departments held a training session for emergency medicine residents.
“Just a few weeks later, it was put to practice,” Schlegel says. “A resident identified a patient crashing and realized they had an airway obstruction. He didn’t hesitate to secure a definitive airway. He got the resources he needed and executed the procedure in a timely fashion, so the patient’s oxygen saturation returned to normal. It was rewarding to see people use their training to directly impact patient care.”
The HDL soon will accept their next two fellows into the program, Dr. Pugliese says. They will continue the groundbreaking work and research at the intersection of health and design.
“Education is a part of everything we do at Jefferson,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what this next year holds.”