Dr. Mark Sochor straddles two high-tech fields at the University of Virginia: engineering and medicine. At the UVA School of Medicine, he’s an emergency room physician, a research vice chair, and an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. At UVA Engineering, he is the medical director for the Center for Applied Biomechanics and an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He’s also the associate director of the Center for Engineering in Medicine, which bridges multiple schools on campus.

UVA Engineering asked him to share his unique perspective as a front-liner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Question: What is it like being an emergency medicine physician during the outbreak?

Answer: It has been an adventure, as I am also an operational medical director for a volunteer emergency medical services agency. So, besides dealing with the workflow changes in the UVA Emergency Department, I have the added task of making sure my prehospital providers are safe, have enough equipment, and are mentally ready to deal with transporting infected patients.  With little information that is considered reliable and well-vetted, it makes for interesting decision-making. What keeps me up at night is the safety of the staff in the Emergency Department, residents and medical students, scribes, techs, housekeeping, nurses, and off-service residents—lots of people to protect while you’re wondering if the items that will protect them the most may run out (PPE). Then there are the really sick patients whom you care for while you are dressed up like an astronaut going out into space. I never appreciated comfort at work as I do now.

What is impressive about the department response is the safety measures put in place to protect our staff. We have never wanted for N-95 masks or any other PPE that we have needed.  What is even more impressive is the attitude of the staff. Everyone is willing to go far more than the extra mile for the patients. 

Q: What are some of the ways engineering has improved ways to treat patients during the pandemic?

A: Telemedicine has got to be the biggest, since this gets people medical help while reducing exposure to the virus. These computer-science-trained medical personnel are making things safer for everyone.  Systems engineering is also inherent to our patient flow of how to move in and out of the department with the least exposure possible to health care workers of all types. Data science has also been key with how we look at the patterns of illness and how we make predictions of the influx of patients. In the first couple weeks of the pandemic, I was approached by a UVA robotics engineer to utilize a prototype robot for cleaning patient rooms with UV light and heat. We have since come up with a plan to help with the burden of quickly turning over a room while still making sure it was cleaned and disinfected properly utilizing this robot. We hope to trial the robot in some of our emergency department rooms, which are currently not in use.

Q: As a researcher yourself, how are you hoping engineering and medicine come together to solve challenges regarding outbreaks and pandemics?

A: I have been approached by so many engineers who wish to help; 3-D printing of masks and sample swabs come to mind immediately. Scientists of all types are extremely clever and resourceful, especially when faced with a complex problem. What better place to be than at an academic and research institution like UVA during a crisis in which lots of problems need to be solved? 

During and after this outbreak, I think robotics and telehealth will be the leaders in how to deal with disease outbreaks. If the human-machine interface can still get the information needed to treat the patient with minimal exposure of the patient to staff and staff to the patient, this will greatly affect how an outbreak impacts the health of a community. I foresee the use of 3-D printing to solve the medical supply crisis and safe recycling of medical items in high demand. As with many breakthroughs, necessity is the mother of invention, and this pandemic is no exception. 

In my career, I have seen that when you put highly talented people in a room together, they will quickly figure out how to use their talents to the team’s advantage and tackle complex problems. I believe it’s imperative that we continue to grow and strengthen engineering-medicine partnerships to be ready for a crisis of this magnitude and ensure high quality public health.