How design can complement science to slow antibiotic resistance at veterinary practices

Tablet being used to demonstrate bacteria

The rise of antibiotic resistant (AMR) bacteria is causing huge problems for medical staff around the world by making one of their key tools – antibiotics – much less effective, and putting lives at risk.

As a result, the battle to find ways to stop the spread of these dangerous new bacteria is being fought fiercely on many fronts.

But not just by the scientists that you might typically associate with hospitals, as researchers at Glasgow School of Art are demonstrating through a remarkable Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project.

Professor Alastair S Macdonald, Senior Researcher at the School of Design has already pioneered new ways of exploring the way diseases spread in the hospital environment, and how the ‘soft’ skills of design can compliment ‘hard’ science in finding ways to stop this happening.

Now he is taking what’s been learned and applying it to a veterinary practice, Fitzpatrick Referrals in Guilford.

Professor Macdonald says that AMR bacteria are a growing issue in small animal veterinary practices.

This means that proper infection prevention and control (IPC) is essential to slowing their  spread – and as his previous work has shown, the take-up of these kinds of processes is heavily influenced by human risk perception and the way staff interact with patients.

Both things that good design is well-placed to influence and change.

“We are building a much more sophisticated model than we have so far,” says Macdonald. His new AHRC-funded Antimicrobial-resistant simulator (AMRSim) will be a dynamic, interactive, virtual model of the vet practice, which takes human, animal and microbial data from the real world, and makes them ‘come alive’ in a visual way.

Importantly, the model will allow the normally invisible bacteria to be ‘seen’ as they multiply and spread through the indoor environment on people, animals and surfaces.

The project is a collaboration between The Glasgow School of Art, the University of Surrey and Fitzpatrick Referrals Ltd. Professor Macdonald and his colleagues have already produced video that follows dogs on their journey through surgery.

He says that what strikes you immediately is that there is a lot of physical reassurance that needs to go on to keep the animals calm, something that raises all sorts of issues for pathogen transmission that you wouldn’t get in a human hospital.

Plus, dogs often behave differently – they shake themselves all over the place, go to the toilet on the floor and lick people’s faces – and all of that brings with it new challenges.

“We want to change people’s perceptions of risk by providing them with data that is much better contextualised and useful,” says Professor Macdonald.

“Graphs and forms won’t change behaviour. But if you can show people on video how they move from touching an animal, to handling notes, to typing on a keyboard; then they can ‘see’ the biosecurity issues. That will improve behaviour.

“But we want to go further with a digital environment that uses avatars, so that not only can you see how behaviour effects pathogens in the environment, but we can also introduce other data – that you can’t ‘see’ in real life.”

This would include the chain of transmission, pathogen hotspots and how things progress.

“We can show how durable these pathogens are,” says Professor Macdonald. “How they can lie there on a surface for months. Using a digital environment, we can also demonstrate how cleaning can make a real difference – and how pathogens come back afterwards.”

It’s this practical, real world aspect to his work that Professor Macdonald hopes will enable him to move “beyond research”.

“What’s interesting from my point of view is that traditionally this research has been associated with the normal healthcare disciplines,” says Macdonald. “And when you actually ask people how the arts and humanities could get involved and help, people are dumbstruck. They have no idea.

“But these projects that we are involved with are developing an awareness of what we can do. This has led to genuine change in mindset.”

“Now we are getting through the review process; we have a track record of previous grants that form quite a nice package. We have brought our ideas into the real world and people can see that.”

After all, without building something and demonstrating it in the real world, how can you know if it works?

“And that’s what’s important,” he says. “The idea of bringing all the disciplines together through a process of co design to make something that makes the world better.”

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