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Picture-Perfect Medicine

Industrial designer Jeremiah Welch ('08) helped build a telepharmacy system that could reduce costs and improve safety

Story by Elaine Porterfield

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| Photo by Dan Levine
Working with a Texas company, Jerimiah Welch is developing a telepharmacy system based on cameras and computers that allows smaller hospitals to share resources and reduce medication errors. | Photo by

If a movie director put out a casting call for someone embodying the Pacific Northwest, it would probably be Jerimiah Welch: rock climber, kayaker and, naturally, high-tech entrepreneur improving the lives of people everywhere.

Welch (’08, Industrial Design) has been developing a virtual telepharmacy system based on digital cameras and computers that allows smaller hospitals to share the vital services of pharmacists and bigger hospitals to reduce medication errors and save money.

It’s the first time Welch, director of the New Market Design Lab in Bellingham, has ever been involved in the medical field, but he’s finding it intriguing. He’s working with client Envision Telepharmacy, based in Texas.

“What my client is doing is creating a system that runs over the Internet that allows smaller hospitals to either share a pharmacist or allows pharmacists to do emergency late-night calls from a home office,” he says. “Before telepharmacy, rural (hospitals) couldn’t afford pharmacists 24/7 - that means having a minimum of five pharmacists on staff.”

So instead of pharmacists, nurses would often double-check the work of a pharmacy technician, Welch says.

While licensed pharmacists have expertise in medications and their safety, nurses have variable levels of training in medications. Pediatric, intravenous and critical care medications can be especially complicated. In addition, unusual medications can pose risks for medical workers who handle them inappropriately.

And then there is the risk of medication errors, sometimes even fatal ones. This fall researchers from the University of California at Davis and the University of Utah medical schools found about 30 percent of patients in rural hospitals faced one or more errors in medications ordered after hours.

“Telepharmacy prevents those situations,” Welch says. “It makes it a lot easier to double-check something and easier to verify something is correctly made. It makes medicine safer.”

The use of the system also can make health care cheaper, because it can help pharmacists use their time more effectively, Welch says. For example, drug compounding – making unique drugs for patients – is done in sterile rooms, and typically requires a pharmacist to gown up before entering to check a technician’s work. But with a telepharmacy camera and computer link, a pharmacist can supervise medications from a computer station anywhere.

“A pharmacist’s time costs about $1 a minute, including when they get dressed and undressed to go into a clean room,” Welch says. “Now they don’t have to do that. There’s a lot of interest in this in places that compound drugs as well as at major city hospitals.”

The most gratifying part of developing a telepharmacy program is how it improves medical care overall, he says.

“I feel like it’s making a huge impact, even though telepharmacy is still pretty young,” he says. “It will save billions for the medical system. And it’s already caught quite a few medication errors that would have killed people. That’s pretty cool.”

WWU Industrial Design Associate Professor Jason Morris says he’s not surprised Welch was tapped for such a major project relatively early in his career. “He is one of the most hardworking students I’ve ever had, and you could see the time he put in on all of his projects. He’s just got this combination of talent and also of being very organized.”

This fall, Welch began another phase of his association with Western: that of teacher. He is teaching an introductory course in design engineering and an upper-level class on materials for design. One of Welch’s former interns from Western, Anders Mavis (’10, Industrial Design), says he’s sure to be an outstanding instructor.

“The guy is awesome, truly,” says Mavis, who now works in outdoor product design for a firm in Boulder, Colo. “He really taught me the skills I needed to survive in the design industry, from understanding relationships in the workplace to acting like a professional. On the design side, he taught me so much from conception to reality and how to work as a team that actually produces something. You don’t always understand what it takes to produce something on a large scale. He gave me good insight on that process, and it really prepared me for the real world.”

Elaine Porterfield (’83, English) earned a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. When she’s not writing for numerous media outlets, she enjoys Bikram yoga, skiing and running as well as watching her 12-year-old daughter Morgan compete in swimming.