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PROFILE: Mary Beth Privitera, Master of Design

Thanks to Mary Beth Privitera’s expertise and leadership skills, students in three UC colleges have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of medicine -- literally.

Date: 9/27/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman Photos By: Dottie Stover
A Master Among the Doctors

Only a handful of universities in the United States have a master of design degree in industrial design. One of them is UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. DAAP’s master of design is a post-professional terminal degree. The graduate program accepts only students with undergraduate and professional backgrounds in digital, fashion, graphic and industrial design who are interested in research, preparation for teaching or advanced professional development in preparation for comprehensive and interdisciplinary design practice.

One graduate, Mary Beth Privitera, exudes interdisciplinary design and collaboration. Privitera teaches in the College of Engineering’s Biomedical Engineering Department (BME).

Innovations in surgical devices mean less invasive procedures

“My job — and what I teach my students to do — is to identify what surgeons’ or physicians’ needs are and then design it,” says Privitera. So how does one prepare to become an instructor of innovation? Privitera received both her bachelor of science and master of design degrees in industrial design from DAAP. She has worked in the medical design industry for 14 years, and has participated in the development of more than 30 product releases.

Wait — a designer? In biomedical engineering?

“We took her away from DAAP!” says William Ball, MD, BME chair. Dr. Ball points out that the collaborative nature of Privitera’s work helps tear down the “curtains” between UC colleges through surgical innovations.

The mysterious curtain that sometimes surrounds the surgeon’s skills is pulled aside to reveal the very human needs of ergonomics and human factors considerations. Simply put, how are the tools of the trade affecting the hands wielding them? And are they best designed for working within the constraints of the patient’s very human body?

"We take medical devices and make them safer for the physicians to use,” Privitera says. Privitera’s courses prepare students to become leaders in research, industry and medicine.

“With the hope that they become innovators,” Privitera adds. She makes her students aware of the demands and the opportunities of the medical device industry. “The goal is that they can hit the ground running.”

An unusual aspect of this already unusual curriculum is that Privitera establishes multidisciplinary teams from across the colleges of Business; Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning; and Engineering. Sid Barton, chair of the Management Department in the College of Business, was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.

“This program is one of only a handful — literally, maybe five to ten schools nationally — that integrate engineering, design and business,” says Marianne Lewis, associate dean in the college of business. She notes that because of the diversity of personalities attracted to various programs, one major might be sitting inside the box and wishing the others would think inside the box sometimes. Meanwhile, they’re wondering why the box dwellers won’t think outside it. Lewis concludes, “The tension between the two powers innovation.”

Privitera’s “Introduction to Medical Device Innovation” course teams up a business student (CoB), an industrial design student (DAAP) and biomedical engineering students (COE) with a physician. They then ask the physician to demonstrate a device about which the physician has a strong opinion, either positive or negative.

The FDA approval process for newly designed medical devices requires a human factor analysis.

Next, Privitera directs the team to learn everything about the device. And she means everything, from where it was made, who designed it, where it is sterilized and how it is used, to what share of the market does the manufacturer hold. The business student’s expertise is in identifying such things as stakeholders and FDA regulatory classification. The industrial design student’s skill comes into play during task analysis. The engineering students apply their engineering skills to analyze the device itself, perhaps even taking it apart. What the students develop is “cross-language” skills in a first-hand cross-disciplinary education.

Business marketing major and student body vice president Ben Hines appreciates the unique qualities of Privitera’s leadership.

Privitera specializes in identifying what surgeons need and then designing it

“Mary Beth is truly an asset to the university faculty,” he says. As a business marketing major, he found her especially helpful in his bridging the gaps that exist when working between colleges. “She does a great job of managing different minds and pulling the best skills out of each student. Her innovation trickles down and flourishes within the team.”

“They don’t realize that they’re educating each other,” Privitera says with a smile.

Once the team has analyzed the device, they have to see it in action. They go into the operating room and observe surgery. She prepares them as best she can for the experience.

“We ask them ‘What are you going to see when you get there?’” Privitera says. “You can’t go in on an empty stomach and don’t lock your knees.” Sometimes there’s only one student standing by the end of the procedure. “But it’s a great experience!”

One of the intangible lessons is in looking at the OR as a very real work environment, not just as a room where miracles happen.

“Sometimes a device doesn’t work,” says Privitera. “In that case, the students are asked ‘Why didn’t it work?’ and ‘Who did that cost?’ We look at the ramifications of design decisions.”

When medical devices fail, the physician can voluntarily report the device failure to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Once reported, however, it is mandatory for the manufacturer to respond.

An industrial designer would look at the life-cycle cost of the device, including disposal.

“For most products, it’s eventually going to a landfill,” says Privitera.

The project culminates in a report describing the device from start to finish. After that, the business and DAAP students are “free to go.” The BME students then have to do their one-year capstone.

“The industrial design and business students are invited to participate further,” says Privitera. “If they choose to do so, the projects will pay for their supplies, but they have to commit their thesis to the project.”

When the students come up with a better mousetrap, sometimes there’s nowhere to go with it. In this day of expensive healthcare, cost is always a factor. Privitera points out that even if the idea would truly improve patient care outcomes, a manufacturer still has to be willing to make it and market it.

“I know I can always trust Mary Beth,” says student Ben Hines “as her intentions and direction has been nothing but genuine in our past experiences.”

The primary goal for surgeons is favorable patient outcomes. Mary Beth Privitera’s primary goal is favorable outcomes for the surgeons — and for UC students.