The VHA Innovators Network (iNET) December InnoVAtor of the Month is Dr. Ravi Rasalingam from the VA Boston Healthcare System. Dr. Rasalingam is also part of the VHA Innovation Ecosystem’s (VHA IE’s) newest class of Fellows. His innovation journey, however, started years ago while observing and empathizing with his patients.

Many patients battling heart disease also have a condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where they stop breathing multiple times per hour during sleep. OSA not only leads to a poor night’s sleep but also places a strain on the body. It has been associated with uncontrolled high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and even premature death. The most prescribed treatment is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device that pumps air through a tight-fitting mask that opens the airway to prevent the collapse that blocks breathing.

“One of my patients told me he refused to use the device, as it was so uncomfortable it felt like it was suffocating him rather than helping him,” explained Dr. Rasalingam. This feedback propelled Dr. Rasalingam to ask more of his Veteran patients about their struggles with the CPAP devices. Dr. Rasalingam had read studies, which consistently reported poor compliance with current OSA treatments, but rarely gave detail as to why. After listening to his patients, it was clear to Dr. Rasalingam that the design of the device was not comfortable enough to allow patients to receive its benefits.

With support from iNET’s Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program in 2020, Dr. Rasalingam collaborated with a huge network of internal and external stakeholders (medical experts, manufactures, Veterans, etc.) to design a new device centered on two central concepts: effectiveness and comfort. The new CPAP device needed to be effective at stopping breathing obstructions caused by OSA, but also comfortable enough for patients to use on a regular basis for a prolonged period.

Following the iNET fundamental of human-centered design, he performed a series of interviews with Veterans to better understand the experience from the perspective of the patient. In one of these interviews, a patient gave Dr. Rasalingam a detailed account of how many different masks he had tried, how arduous it was to maintain the machine, and how he had to sleep in a different room from his wife in order to even use it.

Imploringly, the Veteran asked him, “Have you tried it?” Dr. Rasalingam shook his head no. The Veteran responded, “You should! You would know. It is not designed for the person, the human!”

As a VHA IE Fellow, Dr. Rasalingam will continue his work on the protoype of the device and receive the support he needs to gain the experience and skills necessary to make a positive contribution by leading and spreading his innovation.

iNET’s mission is to weave innovation into the fabric of VA, and by sharing his time and experience, employees like InnoVAtor of the Month Dr. Rasalingam help iNET achieve that mission. It is because of employee innovators like Dr. Rasalingam that Veterans continue to choose VA.

iNET is proud to support employee-driven innovations. Follow VHA IE on Facebook and Twitter all month, as more of Dr. Rasalingam’s story is showcased. Learn how iNET is creating an army of frontline VHA employee innovators.

Allison Amrhein, MPH, is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network.

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Published on Dec. 18, 2020

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