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Past Winner
2003 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Kim Vicente

Cognitive Engineering

University of Toronto


Kim Vicente
Kim Vicente

Preventing medical errors that kill thousands of Canadians every year requires that we change the way we design the interaction between technology and people, says Dr. Kim Vicente, a recipient of a 2003 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

"In health care, when something goes wrong we always blame the individuals," says Dr. Vicente, a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto. "But we've done experiments in which we give people two different interfaces for the same medical device. With one interface they make potentially life-threatening mistakes, and with the other they don't make any at all. So, it can't be the person that's causing the difference in errors."

Dr. Vicente is a leading player in the rapidly growing field of cognitive engineering. It's a discipline that looks beyond the straight "nuts and bolts" approach to making tools, in favour of also considering how people actually use technology.

In 1988, while working in Denmark with Dr. Jens Rasmussen, a pioneer in human-computer interfaces, Vicente coined the term ecological interface design (EID). It describes a new way of designing complex process control systems that takes into account the ways we think, perceive and behave.

"Rather than expecting people to adapt to complex machines, cognitive engineers try to rework the design of technological systems to match what we know about human nature. In everyday situations, this leads to devices that are easier and less frustrating for people to use. In more complex systems – like nuclear power, health care, or aviation – cognitive engineering can literally make the difference between life and death," says Dr. Vicente, who is currently the Hunsaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

During the past decade, the Toronto native has applied EID concepts to systems ranging from cockpit controls to the design of petrochemical and nuclear power plant process controls. The work often involves his playing the role of a technological anthropologist. Several years ago, Dr. Vicente spent a week watching the night shift operators work at the Pickering nuclear power plant.

His research group was the first to apply cognitive engineering principles (known as human factors design) to the redesign of a commercially available medical device. Known as patient-controlled analgesia (PCA), the device is used in hospitals worldwide to enable nurses and patients to administer painkillers.

By redesigning the PCA interface, including reducing the number of possible steps from 27 to 12, Dr. Vicente's research showed that the general error rate among users dropped by half, and the safety-critical factor (the error introduced by programming drug concentration) was completely eliminated.

"Even nurses with five years of experience on the old interface had better results on the redesign after using it for only half an hour," says Dr. Vicente.

As a Steacie Fellow, he will continue to explore improvements to the PCA design – a project that could mean the difference between life and death for patients.

"When nurses use a PCA in a clinical setting, they get interrupted all the time. Our hypothesis is that with our human factor design they'll do okay despite the interruptions."