LINCOLN, Maine ― Dr. Todd O’Brien likes the idea of patients everywhere getting consistent quality care, and he loves solving problems. From those two qualities arise the Lincoln podiatrist’s latest invention.
The ninth medical device created by the 50-year-old Orono resident in the last 10 years, the ETF128 is a point-of-care diagnostic tool designed to measure nerve sensitivity and degradation. It can help diagnose levels of sensitivity threatened by a variety of conditions, including diabetes and many maladies involving trapped or pinched nerves, he said.
O’Brien’s hand-held electronic tuning fork is being manufactured at Saunders Electronics of South Portland. Saunders has made about 60 devices so far for testing and distribution to doctors’ offices and medical centers. It was patented in April 2014.
If all goes well, Saunders will be making 5,000 to 10,000 ETFs a year, said Paul Meserve, the company’s general manager. Meserve, who employs 65 workers, said the device will increase his company’s viability by broadening its market.
“This is one of our first [projects] where we actually go from concept and design to shipping to the end customers,” Saunders said in an interview late last week. “It is a great thing for us getting into that industry. We used to be just circuit board and cable [manufacturers]. Now it’s building the whole thing from beginning to end.”
Podiatrists testing diabetics and other sorts of patients use old-fashioned tuning forks, or pins and needles, to test nerve sensitivity in the feet or other extremities affected by diabetic neuropathy. That’s a condition caused by high blood sugar injuring nerve fibers. It can lead to circulation loss and, eventually, amputation, according to the Mayo Clinic website. About half of the 86,000 amputations that occur annually in the U.S. occur with diabetics.
O’Brien said his invention joins several other electronic devices on the market that improve upon the traditional tool used in screening tests by precisely measuring the time it takes nerves to react to stimuli. It also has application to pinched nerves caused by slipped discs in the spinal cord and other trauma.
“We are testing for how the nerves and nerve receptors are functioning,” O’Brien said. “If they [patients] can feel something all the way back to their spinal cord and to their brain, that’s the whole circuit. If there is some deficit along all the way to that, that’s what we try to measure.”
“We do these screening tests all the time where you sometimes question the value of the data you bring back. With this product we are really elevating the objectivity of what you bring back,” O’Brien said. “They [doctors] are getting a really better feeling of confidence in determining where that patient’s status is.”
O’Brien, who is on staff at Health Access Network of Lincoln, said he enjoys the creativity of invention.
Five of the nine surgical and medical instruments O’Brien invented remain on the market. The inventions include a device that helps doctors avoid getting accidentally stuck with needles during surgery, a bone clamp, an osteotomy guide that helps surgeons make hyper-accurate cuts into bone, and a multicomponent kit that surgeons use to cut the plantar fascia of the foot, he said.
He estimates that he has sold about 200 units in total.
“The motivation really is improving patient care. That’s the main thing. The second thing is I really enjoy problem solving, of figuring things out and making things better,” he said.