An entrepreneurial designer has teamed up with medical experts to produce a new protective product for treating coronavirus patients.
The clear one-piece head box developed by Michael Knight shields clinical staff when they are performing procedures that result in patients expelling aerosol spray.
Mr Knight is managing director of Co Down company Donite Plastics, which uses specialist heat technology – thermoforming – to mass produce moulded plastics.
For the last six weeks he was been working with innovation experts from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge to design the box for use when medics are intubating Covid-19 patients or connecting them to ventilators.
As those procedures result in patients expelling spray, they bring with them a high risk of virus transmission.
The inspiration for the project came during a conversation Mr Knight had with a friend, Dr Madalina McCrea, who works as a consultant anaesthetist in Northern Ireland’s Western Trust.
Mr Knight told the PA news agency: “Mada knew I made things from plastic and we were chatting about a device that would sit over a patient’s head, whether in a ward or an intensive care unit which would allow the medical practitioner to work on the patient, but also to protect them and the patient when carrying out procedures.
“There were pictures on the internet of very simple square acrylic boxes being used for this purpose in Taiwan during the height of their Covid-19 epidemic.”
Mr Knight’s daughter Sarah then put him in touch with a former colleague, Maighread Ireland, who is part of the clinical engineering innovation team at Addenbrooke’s.
He said: “By coincidence, it turned out that Maighread had already been tasked by Addenbrooke’s to investigate these head box devices.
“It made perfect sense then, that they would collaborate to develop a more sophisticated product suitable for use in the UK.”
Mr Knight said making the box perfectly see through was a major challenge using the normal vacuum forming process.
He therefore developed a new technique, which used both vacuum forming and another process called free dome blowing.
“What started as a very simple idea has evolved into quite a sophisticated product,” he said.
“From the start we knew we wanted to form the device from a single piece of plastic so there would be no joins or sharp corners, to make it easy to clean and disinfect.
“The part also had to be crystal clear at the places where the clinician would be looking through it at the patient.”
Mr Knight, whose factory in Saintfield has already been making protective face shields during the pandemic, is hoping to start full production of the head boxes this week.
Despite having not yet advertised the product, there has already been interest from several hospitals which were alerted to the box by word of mouth.
Ms Ireland, from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said: “We have been moving at a very fast pace to develop a protective head box so that our clinicians, medical doctors and patients will have the benefit of an extra layer of protection whilst carrying out aerosol-generating procedures.
“Normal PPE must still be worn, but when dealing with a virus like Covid-19, it is vital that medical staff are made to feel as safe as possible.”
Dr McCrea, who works in the South West Acute hospital in Enniskillen, said she was “surprised and delighted” at how the project had gathered momentum since her initial conversation with Mr Knight.
“I really think the head box is going to help clinicians, like myself, to get some peace of mind, knowing that we are doing all we can to protect ourselves and our patients in this new world of Covid-19,” she said.
“I also think the boxes would potentially be useful for other surgery, not necessitating an anaesthetist or airway manipulation; or for patient transfers from one ward to another.”