When David Putrino broke his leg as a teenager, it set him on the path to becoming one of the leading innovators in global healthcare.
Since leaving Australia to take up a prestigious fellowship at Harvard Medical School in 2009, he has combined his skills as a physical therapist with a desire to adopt the latest in technological advancements, finding new ways to improve patients’ lives.
The 39-year-old is Director of Rehabilitation Innovation at the renowned Mount Sinai Health System in New York, where his work helps not only people recovering from injuries and illnesses but also those, such as elite athletes, seeking to reach their full potential.
“My division works to identify novel technologies that we think can help us to serve our patients better and accelerate their path from bench to bedside in such a way that it's much faster than the national average, which in the United States is 17 years,” said Dr Putrino, who will share his experiences at the APHA 40th National Congress (APHA Congress) in late March.
“Our main mission is to make that number as small as possible, because we think that 17 years is an outrageous number that shouldn't exist.”
Dr Putrino said many healthcare organisations were wary of adopting new technologies, even though the benefits of such innovations were easy to demonstrate – both in terms of patient outcomes and business results.
“I'm going to be talking about ways that people can identify opportunities and jump on opportunities for innovation, and really talk about the fact that innovation in healthcare is a repeatable process,” he said of his APHA Congress presentation.
“It's not some sort of moon-shot, hard-to-grasp concept. It is something that you can do fairly repeatedly. Everyone has the potential to innovate in healthcare.”
As a 16-year-old growing up in Perth, Dr Putrino learned a valuable lesson from the seemingly disinterested staff who treated him in hospital after he badly broke his leg playing AFL.
“At that age I knew I wanted to get into healthcare, but I didn't quite know which field,” he recalled.
“Most of the people who I was being treated by as a patient kind of treated me as furniture. It was actually the physios who connected with me, wanted to understand my goals, worked with me to achieve those goals.”
Inspired, he embarked on a career in physical therapy, working for a range of organisations in both the private and public sectors, and dived headfirst into research – especially the field of computational neuroscience.
“As a researcher who was very interested in brain-computer interface technology from the very start, understanding how to develop some of these technologies – and the science that went into developing technologies like this – was very front of mind for me,” Dr Putrino said.
“So that was what spurred my decision to leave Australia and take a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT and Harvard.”
Presenting his PhD research in New York, he managed to impress Emery Brown, a pioneer in computational neuroscience, who invited him to join his team at Harvard.
This academic career eventually led Dr Putrino to his present-day role at Mount Sinai, an eight-hospital integrated healthcare system.
One of his current projects involves Australian company Synchron, which went to New York to run a clinical trial on a minimally-invasive brain implant that helps restore body function to people debilitated by degenerative neurological conditions such as motor neuron disease, or paralysed by strokes or spinal-cord injuries.
“We've now implanted three patients who were all completely locked-in and unable to move their arms and legs, and these folks are on their way to achieving complete cognitive control of a digital device, meaning that they think, and the cursor moves, they think and the mouse clicks,” he said.
“They can start to initiate all sorts of commands in their personal environment through this technology.”
Dr Putrino said Synchron’s situation was similar to that of many Australian innovators, who often have to find support overseas.
“Australia is really good at innovation, it's really good at producing technologies that could actually be completely disruptive. But it's very bad at adopting those technologies,” he said.
“So typically, what happens is those technologies get incubated in Australia and then they come to the US to actually get adopted, because at least in the US you can make a very clear metric case for why a hospital should adopt the technology; you can make a value-based case.
“I think the biggest challenges to innovation are framing healthcare through a lens of cost or of compliance to standards, as opposed to framing healthcare through the more humanistic question of, ‘Are we doing everything we possibly can for our patients?’”
Dr Putrino said private hospitals in Australia were much better placed to adopt new technologies than those in the public sector.
“I will speak about this in the talk (at APHA Congress). I think private hospitals in Australia have the opportunity to be always on the bleeding edge of what they can offer their patients,” he said.
Dr Putrino will also share his experiences working with elite athletes on Red Bull’s North American high-performance program, discovering techniques that can also be applied to general rehabilitation.
“I think we often completely neglect how much a high-performance coach works to make the work that an athlete does exciting, fun, novel and enjoyable, day-in, day-out,” he said.
“They do all sorts of things that really nurture things like neuroplasticity, that, ironically, are some of the main things that we're trying to achieve in rehab of stroke and spinal-cord injury and traumatic brain injury.”
As well as studying the brain signals of big-wave surfers and performing experiments on ultra-endurance athletes at Mount Sinai, Dr Putrino is also a key member of Not Impossible Labs – a project dedicated to making healthcare more accessible and inclusive with creative solutions.
These include finding ways to get vaccines to people in impoverished remote regions, building a device to help a near deaf and blind boy navigate his world, and inventing the world’s first low-cost eye-tracking technology that enabled a former graffiti artist paralysed by the motor neuron disease ALS to resume his creative life.
He is particularly proud of a wearable haptic technology they developed that vibrates and interacts with the sensory system – it can be used for treatment, such as reducing the severity of Parkinson’s Disease, and for entertainment by creating inclusive music experiences for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“That has been really special to me and really exciting to see grow over time, because we built it from a couple of people having beers and soldering things together, all the way through to a finished product,” he said.
- Dr David Putrino will deliver his keynote speech, titled ‘How will technology drive healthcare in the future?’ at 12.30pm on Monday 27 March 2023.
- To see the full program and register for the APHA 40th National Congress in Sydney, visit the official website.
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