Collaborative project sees young people help design their own prosthetic limbs

Disabled young people who use prosthetic limbs have worked with technicians and clinicians to devise new products that will improve the comfort and quality of prosthetics, making their lives better.

  • Project Starworks Innovation Project
  • Organisation Devices for Dignity NIHR Health Technology Co-operative Participation

When asked what he hoped to get out of taking part in the Starworks Innovation Project, one eight-year-old boy said he just wanted a prosthetic that enabled him to "run and play with my friends at school".

Finding practical prosthetic solutions for disabled children was the aim of Starworks, which was led by a co-operative made up of Devices for Dignity, the NIHR and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

To gain a clearer insight into the everyday practical issues faced by children and young people who use prosthetics, the co-operative held a series of "sandpit" workshop events across the country that were attended by 56 children and family members. At these workshops they were able to talk to healthcare professionals, industry experts and academics.

One clear issue to emerge was the need to do more to make it easier for disabled children to integrate with their able-bodied peers. The children felt that they were often unable to express and retain their character and personality with their prosthetic, as it became the only thing their friends saw.

To remedy this, the industry experts and family members explored the concept of children being able to personalise their prosthetics. On the day, they used pens and paints to decorate their prosthetics, which reflected aspects of their personalities.

Prosthetics experts could use this information to better understand the child's prosthetic needs in the product design process.

For example, one of the children's ideas that emerged was to develop prosthetics that would effectively "grow" with the user, preventing the need for refits which can disrupt lives.

Also, the suggestion that the limb components should be adjustable rather than requiring constant replacement would help more than one child - parts of limbs could be reused separately by another child, which could save money.

A total of 234 ideas were produced through the workshops, which were subsequently matched to 59 problem areas or themes, including comfort and appearance, 15 of which were previously unexplored.

The way the project was developed meant there was a balance of "clinical pull" and "technical push", says Raj Purewal, business development and partnerships director at Trustech, the NHS innovation arm. This, he says, created the right environment for technicians and designers to work with commercial firms to develop practical solutions to address the issues raised by the children. To encourage this, it offered commercial providers a share of £50,000 of government funding to come up with the design ideas.

The successful applicants have been selected and their projects will be announced in February.

A Parent's View

Carly Bauert is mother to Oliver aged 10 and works for the charity LimbPower. She says the project has enabled her son, who was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, to express his hopes and fears about prosthetics.

"As the mother of a very active prosthetic wearing 10-year-old boy, I was very interested in the research that Starworks was conducting," she says.

"There seems to be no question that there has to be a change in the process of acquiring the correct prosthetic limbs for children but there has never been an opportunity to voice these concerns. As a parent, it was extremely frustrating to accompany your child on a journey that was not fulfilling their needs.

"Starworks offered focus groups and questionnaires that allowed parents and children's voices to be heard. With so much technology available, it seemed unfair that our children did not seem to benefit from it.

"The Starworks team has been very active in engaging families, to find out what is actually needed and the benefits that an improved service would bring."

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