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HL20: Thomas Hansen, MD—Breathing Easy: Simple Research Solutions

Anna Webster, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2011

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is the story of Thomas Hansen, MD.

This profile was published in the December, 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

 "The intellectual stimulation of doing research, I can't live without it. It's a passion that keeps you fresh and enthusiastic and prevents you from being burned out."

His goal as CEO is to breathe new life into the patients of Seattle Children's Hospital. But that's not enough for Thomas N. Hansen, MD, the brainchild behind the Hansen ventilator, a device that could lead to low-cost care for infants in impoverished places the world over.

Developing countries with limited resources currently lack an alternative for costly mechanical ventilators that can save thousands of infant lives. Hansen's option is a ventilator with fewer parts that provides babies with a small increase in air pressure above atmospheric levels and stabilizes the lung. The result reduces the work of breathing and can cut down infant mortality rates.  

Hansen was in the room with some of his research partners he's known since 1981, working on attacking the problem with current ventilators and came up with the simple design "almost by accident."

"I was drawing on a blackboard pictures of how a ventilator worked and suddenly it dawned on me and everybody in the room that we could take this $30,000 ventilator and build it for less than $400," Hansen says. Ventilators measure air pressure with units of water pressure so, Hansen thought, why not use columns of water to move air in and out of the lungs instead of high-tech electronics.

The project, though consuming, remains a priority for Hansen. If friends could use one word to describe him, it would be workaholic, Hansen says. He spends 60-plus hours a week working as CEO, but still makes ventilator research a priority, dedicating time every Monday for work in the lab.

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