Published: June 21, 2016

When Kathleen Ventre, a pediatric critical care physician and faculty member in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, began working with computer science student Josh Ferge, she expected him to be able to write code to model the simulated defibrillator she envisioned.

What she didn’t expect was how quickly Ferge would absorb the rationale for the project, gain the necessary medical knowledge and unite those elements with the coding piece.

“Josh was able to grasp the importance of developing a simulator that would facilitate interactive, on-demand training for healthcare workers, and he was also able to work very quickly in refining a prototype simulator capable of correcting shockable heart rhythms occurring to virtual patients,” Ventre said.

A screenshot of the simulated defibrillator showing a tutorial for usersVentre, whose academic focus is interprofessional team training for healthcare workers, explained that of all children who are hospitalized, fewer than 5 percent suffer a cardiac arrest. Of those, less than 20 percent have an arrest requiring defibrillation. While that’s good news for patients, it makes it hard for doctors and nurses to keep their skills from getting rusty.

She had an idea for an on-demand software training program, but hadn’t been able to find the right people to work with. When she came to CU, she reached out to Professor Clayton Lewis, who visited her simulation facility at Children’s Hospital Colorado and made an announcement about the project in his classes.

Ferge began working for Ventre as a summer intern after his sophomore year. Together, they painstakingly built a software program that recreated a virtual defibrillator.

“I wanted to model the look, sounds, layout – all the essential functions – and develop case scenarios where the users would have to interact with the defibrillator’s console,” Ventre said. “We recorded audio and modeled every aspect, even the confusing things” so that users could experience the tricky aspects of how the defibrillator functions.

By the fall, they had a prototype that they tested with doctors and nurses in Utah and Colorado. By the winter, Ventre was confident they were onto something, so she and Ferge presented the prototype at the national meeting of Society for Simulation in Healthcare. Ferge won the “Best in Show Award” for student projects in the field of Serious Games and Virtual Environments. They were subsequently invited to present the simulator for the Institute of Medicine’s Global Forum on Innovation in Health Professional Education in Washington, DC.

“I could not have been prouder of Josh. For someone who’s an undergraduate to develop this kind of disruptive technology is amazing,” Ventre said.

Ferge, who graduated in May 2016 and has joined early stage startup Augur, used the project as his senior thesis and helped to design a clinical trial for the simulator, which is currently underway at Children’s Hospital of Colorado.

“Working on the simulator while I was in school was the most rewarding task I've ever accomplished, and cannot thank Dr. Ventre and Dr. Lewis enough for their willingness to believe in a young person and mentor me throughout the project,” Ferge said.

Ventre said the success of the project has convinced her of the need to engage junior faculty and students in her research field. She hopes for more cooperative opportunities with the Department of Computer Science in the future.

“In my profession, early and mid-career academics commonly collaborate with their senior colleagues,” she said. “But when it comes to software development, you really need to go younger. I realized that senior medical colleagues do not often have the programming knowledge required to develop innovations of this kind.”