More than Medicine

Professor Diana Slade

How UTS is moving forward in health research.

Australia’s health system is considered one of the most comprehensive, accessible and affordable in the world. However, there is increasing pressure to find new ‘outside-the-box’ methods to address the challenges brought about by disruptive social change. Much of this change comes through the advent of new technology and research that point towards the need for a broader, more holistic approach to the provision of healthcare. They call for a multi-faceted approach to addressing the needs of the public’s growing demands on the health system.

By playing to its advantages in innovation and collaboration, UTS is uniquely placed to make a difference to Australia’s health system in the areas of policy creation, practice and technology. Its multidisciplinary approaches to health issues and the incorporation of inter-professional education are already making a difference to the way we think about primary healthcare and allied health professions.

Here are just a few examples of how UTS is making a difference to the health sector, incorporating the thinking and know-how of multiple faculties to produce superior real-world results for primary and allied healthcare providers.

Building the Super Sim Lab

Manikins – high-tech simulated patients – capable of feeding back life signs such as heart rate and blood pressure, are an important part of educating healthcare providers of the future. There are plans to acquire more but at the moment, there are only three of the most high-tech variety at the UTS Faculty of Health, used daily and shared between 2100 undergraduate nursing students, 165 midwifery undergraduates and 500 postgraduates.

Funding more manikins would vastly enhance the students’ learning experience. “We want to create a high fidelity experience, as realistic as possible for our students before they go on to work with real patients,” says, Associate Professor Joanne Gray, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Health.

You can imagine the workout each manikin gets. Every day, students dress them in different clothes and thrust them into a variety of clinical situations. The high-tech manikins can bleed, sweat, fit, recognise medications, and can speak through a voice simulator controlled by a lecturer in a control booth.

“We have sleeves so the manikin can even have tattoos. Their pupils can dilate and they can cry and blink their eyes. They can also go into respiratory arrest,” says Gray. “The ‘sim’ babies even go blue (from lack of oxygen) and move their arms and legs.”

Gray’s main goal is to create a Super Sim Lab by doubling the number of high-tech manikins and setting up a simulated intensive care unit with five to six beds. Each would have a high-tech manikin lying in it so students can learn in a hands-on environment.

Students can also practice communicating with their patients. The high-tech manikins will have video cameras and recording devices positioned at each bed so that lecturers can debrief students and offer feedback.

“Expanding the number of manikins fits perfectly with UTS health strategy,” says Gray. “We are looking at producing Australia’s best-prepared health graduates, ready for workforce integration and are up-to-date on evidence-based interdisciplinary research.

“A nurse may only ever see a particular life-threatening situation once or twice in their career, but if they have practised on a manikin many times before they get to the real situation then it is familiar and they are ready,” says Gray.

The main challenge is that the sim patients don’t come cheap; each one requires funding of more than $90,000 to purchase, but the benefits that students reap are priceless.

Improving hospital communication

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are over 500,000 people a year harmed in hospital. One third of these incidents are due to communication failures in handovers between clinicians, and doctor-patient interactions. It could be as simple as a GP forgetting to handover written notes to a psychiatrist.

"We aren’t critical of the clinicians – we are impressed by their professionalism. It is just that they receive very little evidence-based communication during university or later in professional development."

A new initiative led by Professor Diana Slade, director of the International Research Centre for Communication in Healthcare (IRCCH) at UTS, is attempting to reverse this trend with an innovative evidence-based program to teach doctors, nurses and clinicians how to communicate more effectively.

“We aren’t critical of the clinicians – we are impressed by their professionalism,” says Slade. “It is just that they receive very little evidence-based communication during university or later in professional development.”

To address this, Slade and her team have developed an innovative program using authentic audio and video recordings of interactions between doctors, nurses, allied professionals and patients. The videos are incorporated into training programs to improve clinicians’ communication skills and deliver better patient-centred care, as well as empowering junior doctors, nurses and patients to speak up too.

These training programs are drawn from recordings of 829 patient handovers as well as hundreds of hours of patient-clinician consultations collected by IRCCH teams in Australian hospitals over the last eight years.

“At IRCCH we have one of the world’s largest databases of authentic communications between patients and clinicians,” says Slade.

After a successful pilot project at Canberra Hospital involving 350 nurses, IRCCH is now seeking donor funding to expand their training programs across Australia and Asia.

The IRCCH initiative is timely as the World Health Organization has cited improving clinician communication as one of the top five urgent actions to decrease patient deaths in hospitals globally.

Building a low-cost PET scanner

PET (positron emission tomography) scanners are one of the most effective diagnostic tools for detecting recurring cancer, changes in the brain (such as the onset of Alzheimer’s disease) or finding blocked vessels in the heart. They are key to providing faster and effective treatment and can therefore save lives.
Australian hospitals have about 45 PET scanners, most of them in larger cities, consequently patients in remote and rural areas have comparatively limited access.

A team of UTS researchers led by Dr Daniel Franklin, senior lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications, is using state-of-the-art nanomaterials to develop a low-cost PET scanner with 4D imaging capabilities.

“My vision is that by reducing the manufacturing and operational costs – cutting these by at least half – we could dramatically increase access to these machines, for medicine and research, both in Australia and in the developing world.”

“My vision is that by reducing the manufacturing and operational costs – cutting these by at least half – we could dramatically increase access to these machines, for medicine and research, both in Australia and in the developing world,” says Franklin.

Franklin hopes to design a scanner built from special nano-composite materials.

“The material allows for a simplified production and assembly process, with improved sensitivity. We could possibly even build the scanner with a 3D printer,” says Franklin.

The team’s new scanner design would be better at detecting radiation than current models, which means patients can afford to take a smaller dose of the radiopharmaceutical that is usually involved in the procedure. Their scanner would also have the ability to take time-lapse 3D movies of the behaviour of the radiopharmaceutical in the body.

Franklin projects a three year timeline for research; they are now in the midst of the theoretical and simulation stage, building mathematical models and detailed simulations. “When we are confident of our design, we will build a prototype – that is when we will need funding – and then hopefully, head for commercialisation,” he says.

You can help UTS reach its vision with the Super Sim Lab, hospital communications, the low-cost PET scanner and many other health initiatives at

Story by Melinda Ham