Juliet Walker on using F1 technology in medicine

Juliet WalkerFormula 1 motor racing is not usually something associated with medical innovation, however a new exhibition at the Science Museum shows how Formula 1 inspired technology is being used to improve medical practice and resources. The Fast Forward exhibition shows twenty ways in which Formula 1 is changing the world, six of which are focused around improving health care.

One of these arose when a surgeon from Great Ormond Street Hospital was watching a grand prix on a Sunday afternoon. Impressed by the speed and precision with which Formula 1 teams conduct their pit stops, he realised that it was not dissimilar to the teamwork and accuracy required to handover a patient post operation from theatre to the intensive care unit. Like a pit stop, this transfer requires quick coordination and teamwork at a time when a patient is very vulnerable. The tired operating team needs to convey critical information about the patient to the fresh ITU team, as well as connecting the patient to different life support machines. Unlike the Formula 1 pit stops, the doctors realised that this often involved a small element of chaos with people milling around with no established order. By watching video footage of a post operation transfer, with the McLaren and Ferrari teams, the doctors were able to make a series of changes to their procedure. The team were all given specific roles and the anaesthetist was put in charge like the “lollipop man” in a pit stop. (The “lollipop man” signals to the driver precisely what is happening, when he should get into gear, and finally when he should leave the pit stop). This new clear command structure has reduced errors by 40% and decreased the amount of time that post operation transfers take. The success of the project means that it has now been adopted in different areas of Great Ormond Street hospital and is being tried out worldwide.

Another innovation in paediatric medicine is the “Baby Pod II infant transporter”. This ground breaking incubator is used to keep babies safe when they are transported between hospitals. Previously transporting sick or premature babies required specialist vehicles, a large team of people, and advance preparation. Like Formula 1 cars, the Baby Pod is made of hi tech carbon fibre composite which is tough and lightweight. It only weighs 9.5 kg so it can be carried by one medic, and is entirely free of metal pieces, which means it can be used in MRI scanners and X-Ray machines. The safety precautions that are used on Formula 1 cars have been applied to the design of the pod. A crumple zone ensures that it can withstand impact, and shock absorbing foam soaks up any vibrations.

Measuring the performance of an Formula 1 car during a race is vital in ensuring a good result. To do this, Formula 1 teams use top-of-the-range telemetry systems which monitor 150,000 measurements a second from over 200 sensors on the car. These are analysed and adjustments can be made. This has led to the development of a human telemetry system, which can be used by doctors to monitor patients taking part in clinical trials. Wireless body sensors are used to record the heart rate, ECG, temperature, blood, oxygen and respiration activity. This is sent back to a “collector”, a small portable device which collects and transmits the data. It can be transmitted to doctors around the world who can analyse it and assess the patient’s treatment or drug doses. It is hoped that this will speed up the development and testing of new drugs.

Another innovative design to capture healthcare data is the “Ovei Wellbeing Capsule 2009”. This immersive diagnostics tool is used to take readings when the patient sits inside the capsule. The data are then sent to doctors, therapists, and psychologists around the world, in real time, so they can suggest the diagnosis and treatment. It was designed by Lee McCormack with the help of McLaren engineers. The design of the capsule was modelled on racing car principles. It is made of carbon fibre composites which are strong and lightweight, therefore eliminating the need for internal structures. The capsule is kept cool, despite the amount of hi tech equipment inside, by an internal air flow similar to that of Formula 1 cars.

The most direct way in which Formula 1 has influenced medicine is the development of the “K-2 all terrain manual wheelchair”. Designed using the same principles that are applied to a Formula 1 car, the wheelchair goes twice as fast as existing models and can cope with challenging terrains. The heart of a racing car is a carbon fibre shell, the “monocoque”, which provides the frame to attach the car’s structural components to. It also encases and protects the driver. The shape and design of the “monocoque” have been applied to the shape of the wheelchair, making it strong, lightweight, and comfortable.

The final invention is the “Gen3 leg brace”. This is a lightweight leg support, which is used to reduce damage and injuries to the knee. The principles behind it come from the technology used to keep Formula 1 cars on the road. Formula 1 cars need to maintain maximum contact with the racetrack in order to reach top speeds. Hydraulic dampers absorb the energy of any bumps to keep the car on the road. The leg braces are being used by US Marines who work on fast moving boats. Their knees absorb the impact of the movement, which is the equivalent to jumping off a 2 ½ m wall every few seconds. The brace can also be used to help heal knees post surgery.

These medical innovations are just a few of the ways in which Formula 1 technology is influencing other areas of design and technology. The exhibition shows that although Formula 1 is most associated with fast cars, the expertise that goes into making a Formula 1 car is having a beneficial effect on all our lives. The exhibition runs until 5 April 2010.

Juliet Walker is the Editorial Intern, BMJ