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Sunday Sitdown with Dr. John Vozenilek, med-tech entrepreneur

Dr. John Vozenilek wants doctors, nurses and medical residents to stop using human cadavers in training. And he has something to replace them: life-like, technology-enhanced dummies his company calls phantoms. Vozenilek, who did his residency in emergency medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is chief strategy officer for SIMnext, located at MATTER, a home in the Merchandise Mart for health-care startups. Vozenilek spoke with reporter Sandra Guy about why medical training needs automatons. A condensed transcript follows.

Question: Why is your company developing what you call phantoms — what most people would see as crash-test dummies and dummy parts — to train doctors, nurses and residents?

Answer: We build life-like body parts using silicon, 3-D modeling and computer technology, so doctors, nurses and medical practitioners can pick up the latest physical examination skills at the patient’s bedside. They produce life-like signs through high-tech interfaces. We combine them with a training curriculum they can access from a tablet computer so they can make a diagnosis more quickly and accurately. We’ve got to make sure this kind of medical education gets out to hospitals and clinics so everyone is trained to the best standard.

Q: So a nurse uses the curriculum on a tablet, rather than rely on something learned in a lecture hall?

A: Nurses are constantly working with machines, whether that’s a dialysis machine or programming ventilators or smart pumps. Studies show that, about one in five times, small errors can occur. Most of the time, they don’t affect patients, thank goodness. But when they do, it can be devastating. Our company’s curriculum on a tablet lets the nurses do a safety double-check at the moment it’s most important. We’re receiving orders from medical schools, nursing schools and academic medical centers. We’re distributing the products in eight countries.

We produce free 3-D models of the upper torso to train in life-saving airway surgeries, free models of congenital heart disease so it can be treated, and we sell the DR Doppler ultrasound training device that gives simulations of blood flow starting at $500.

Q: What role will the new medical school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign play in what your company does? [The Carle Illinois College of Medicine, billed as the first in the United States to combine engineering and medical training, is set to open in 2017.]

A: It’s a massive opportunity to think differently about what medical education can produce. It’s focused on the idea of health-care engineering.

Q: What’s the payoff for your company’s primary investor, OSF Healthcare System?

A: Under the Obama health-care reform law, patients are allocated a certain amount of spending each year, rather than be billed for each procedure without a cap. That means health-care workers have to get to the bottom of patients’ problems, using the most advanced tools without incurring additional expense.

Q: As a resident at Northwestern, you got the chance to be the field doctor at Wrigley Field?

A: We got to hang out at Wrigley Field and take care of any medical emergencies — like if someone in the stands fell down the stairs or got hit by a flying ball. I was really, really passionate about getting to as many games as possible. After I had children, I’d take them to the games and take my pager.

Q: You have four children and also teach. What do you do for fun?

A: I have all kinds of woodworking equipment where I threaten to cut off my thumb on a regular basis. I like to build things for my family­ — desks, tables, chairs. I like to work with wood. I’m particularly fond of walnut and cherry. I built a desk that my little girl, who’s now 18 and a student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, can take with her on the road. For entertainment, I have broad tastes. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for hip-hop; other times, something more sedate, like Mumford & Sons.