Groundbreaking Medical Communication Advancement Calls Iowa Home

IOWA CITY, Iowa  --  The steady beeping sounds associated with hospital rooms are often reality.

With 35 million patients visiting hospitals each year, a surprising amount wake up feeling helpless.

"Roughly 3.9 million of these at one point or another cannot activate a nurse call, yet are cognitively intact."

It's a problem Matthew Howard, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Iowa, says he's dealt with throughout his 30-year career.

"You can take all the time you want but you just can't communicate at all."

A new product out of Coralville is bridging that divide.

"A lot of patients can't use a nurse call button and they can't speak, but what they can do is use mouth sounds," said Ben Berkowitz, product engineer for Voxello.

It's called the Noddle. CEO Rives Bird described how the product received its name. "Slang, like noodle for brain, but also the preface of it, 'nod.' Well that's a volunteer gesture we make to communicate."

A click that is sending shock waves through the medical field.

Bird said, "This is a completely emerging market. Nobody has ever done this in the hospital, yet it's hugely needed."

The portable device comes with a tablet and sensors, ready to plug in and play.

Berkowitz said, "They can click their tongue and move the cursor around the screen." This provides vital feedback instantly.

The Noddle is currently in use at the University of Iowa Hospital.

"Very fortunate, especially since we are the only academic medical center in the state of Iowa," said Jolyn Schneider, the Burn Trauma Unit's nurse manager. She added, "Before that, we had to read lips and maybe put a nursing assistant in the room so we knew when they wanted help."

Now, with the Noddle, "If they want to call the nurse, they click three times and it triggers the call light hooked to the back," said Berkowitz.

Jolyn said it goes along way towards accomplishing their goals of bedside comfort.

"We can meet the patients' needs in an appropriate amount of time, and that's a huge thing as far as patient satisfaction goes."

The groundbreaking device comes from humble beginnings.

"In 2013 at the University of Iowa, there's a program called IMIG. It stands for Iowa Medical Innovation Group and is comprised of students." Students, along with Dr. Richard Hurtig the chair of Speech and Communications at the University of Iowa, came up with the idea. "Generally IMIG is a student program to simulate businesses. It's not expected that an actual business comes out of it," said Bird.

That's exactly what happened, and in 2015 Rives Bird created Voxello simply for the product that benefits more than just the patient.

"It's  tremendous for the families to be able to know that patient and loved one is not locked in, not excluded from being able to communicate," said Dr. Howard.

Also creating buzz, Voxello says it will help with a hospital's bottom line as the new advancement in communication can catch costly preventable adverse events hospitals must pay for, such as pressure ulcers, adverse reactions to medicine, or aspiration pneumonia before they happen.

"It could be very expensive. You are talking $10,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 per incident," said Bird. "You can save $700,000 within the first year."

This could save money and valuable time when seconds can change a life.

"This group has essentially invented a new field, and this is the first step," said Dr. Howard.

Giving power to the powerless and a voice to the voiceless.

Voxello plans a soft launch in July at hospitals in Chicago and Philadelphia.  A full product launch across the country is expected in early 2018. Each Noddle device will cost around $3,000.