More than ever before, a career in orthotics and prosthetics represents the intersection of art, science and healthcare.
Technological advances and design improvements are changing the lives of people with limb loss and limb differences. Prosthetic knees with micro-processors help users achieve a more normal walking pattern. Orthotic braces fashioned with lighter materials and equipped with Bluetooth technology improve limb control. At the same time, users want a prosthesis that adapts to their own lives and represents their unique personality.
Members of the University of Delaware’s Orthotics and Prosthetics Club have a front-row seat to glimpse the changes underway in this growing industry. The registered student organization is still in its beginning stages after being formed earlier this year, but already its 20 members have heard from local prosthetists about the field and what kind of opportunities are possible. Students come from varying majors, including biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, speech pathology, nursing and exercise science – an indication of the diversity of interest in the field.
It’s a good place to be, considering that nationally there’s a dearth of health professionals in O&P, a shortage expected to grow in coming years, given the emerging technology and the rising numbers of amputees, senior citizens and people with musculoskeletal disorders.
“We’re hoping our club can help people be aware about what the field entails. Since it’s a growing field, more people the better,” said Amira Idris, a biomedical engineering major and vice president of the O&P club.
Idris and Bretta Fylstra, also a biomedical engineering major, started the club after attending an interest meeting held by Dr. Steven Stanhope, director of the BADER Consortium, which supports clinical rehabilitation research toward improving outcomes for patients with combat-related musculoskeletal injuries.
The students, both of whom want to pursue a career in O&P, said they are drawn to the potential opportunities that working in the field provides. Fylstra appreciates the increased focus on aesthetics in the industry, including advances to make the artificial limb either more lifelike or – taking the opposite route – completely unique.
“What’s nice is that people are more proud about having their prosthesis,” said Fylstra, who serves as president of the club. “They want to show what it can do.”
As part of a winter session class, Idris interned at Independence Prosthetics & Orthotics, where she saw firsthand the different paths people take to wind up in the profession. “Some were engineering majors. One was an art major,” she said. “Some never even took science courses, but they are really good at their jobs.”
The club draws students from several majors, including exercise science, biomedical engineering, speech pathology and nursing.
In recent years, Independence Prosthetics has become a familiar stop for UD students interested in prosthetics, owner John Horne said. Independence has been part of a clinical immersion course taken by biomedical engineering students. The Newark company has hosted about 30 interns, including one who is coming from Australia this summer.
“We’ve invited students because we want to educate people from those of us in the field,” said Horne, who also is a below-the-knee amputee. “Student interest is there. Their motivation is to learn and understand more. Their desire is to help people and improve their quality of life.”
Next semester, the club hopes to build on its first-year success by adding more members and perhaps developing a campus-wide prosthetic design project. In the meantime, students want to raise awareness about the important work being done to help people with limb loss and limb difference. Along the way, that interdisciplinary approach just might spark some creativity that leads to innovation.
“I don’t know any other club on campus trying to do something like this by getting different majors work together,” Idris said. “It makes a difference because it’s one thing for an orthotic or prosthesis to be practical so that a person can walk, pick up a cup or return to some other daily activity. It’s another for the device to be aesthetically pleasing and reflective of a person’s individual personality.”