Laura Whitsitt, M.S., SVP, Research & Development- Orthopaedics, Smith+Nephew, Inc.
During more than 30 years with global medical technology leader Smith+Nephew, (S+N) Inc., Senior Vice President of Research & Development-Orthopaedics Laura Whitsitt has seen a lot of history, and made some of it - as reflected, in part, by some of the patents S+N has acquired on her watch: for an artificial spinal disc, an artificial bone graft implant, bone fixation apparatuses, and more.
Recognized as an Outstanding Alumna of the University of Memphis Herff College of Engineering, where she acquired her undergraduate and M.S. degrees, Whitsitt continues to serve her alma mater as a member of the College of Engineering Advisory
Council, and her community as a member of the FedEx Institute of Technology Advisory Board, the Memphis Research Consortium, and the Greater Memphis Chamber Board of Directors, among others.
Her early aptitude and love for math and science - and two favorite teachers -guided her into engineering, but it was during a graduate internship at Smith+Nephew that her fascination with the medical aspect of engineering burgeoned.
Her current role at S+N is trifold, encompassing RTI (Research, Technology, and Innovation), which assesses and evaluates the feasibility of early stage technologies; Product Development that addresses the needs of surgeons and patients; and continuing Product Support.
Recently launched S+N technologies she and her colleagues have shepherded into the marketplace include the Real Intelligence brand of enabling medical technology solutions throughout the continuum of care - and the CORI surgical system, a new generation handheld robotics platform with faster camera function and more efficient cutting technology, sized for ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs). A new total hip arthroplasty (THA) option, the OR3O Dual Mobility System, also offers increased range of movement and jump distance in an implant created from S+N's proprietary OXINIUM™ oxidized zirconium alloy, with its superior wear- and corrosion-resistant characteristics.
More than two million patients have already received hip and knee replacement implants made from OXINIUM, and its unique properties and performance record are inspiring Whitsitt's team to develop more products that utilize the material.
They're also focusing on the pandemic-driven universal need for more data, more telehealth products, and more digital ways to utilize products. With many treatments now being done remotely, she explains, "any way that we can facilitate remote pre- and post-operative care for patients with our devices and equipment will be welcomed.
"Some of our programs are looking at a more digital focus for trauma devices - allowing patient interaction," she hints. "-- like using an app to help adjust an external fixation device stabilizing their fracture."
Her short-term goals, in fact, focus on continuing to develop such products, and to improve the processes used to get those products into users' hands more efficiently.
Her long-term goals are broader and include not only continuing to serve her community by sharing her insights and experience on a lengthy list of civic and charitable boards, but doing corporate board work, as well.
And while she justly values those professional accomplishments that have delivered innovative and unique orthopaedic products like OXINIUM to surgeons and patients, possibly the successes closest to her heart involve her work in mentoring.
"To me, helping others to begin or advance their careers is extremely important. I've mentored a number of men and women within Smith+Nephew to help them better grow their careers or address challenges in their current roles, and I also reach out to young women in environments where they may not have knowledge or access to all their career opportunities."
"We're starting to see a lot more women in college programs - particularly in biomedical engineering," she notes with pleasure.
In her 30 years, she's also seen "a big change in orthopaedics as the healthcare system overall has changed its focus - from a focus on product 'bells and whistles' to products that provide efficiency and value. I think the future is going to include a lot of data, and digital technologies are going to be very important."
She points to the growing number of orthopaedic procedures that are moving to ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). S+N surgical technology is consequently designed to be compact and efficient.
"In order to be successful, ASC's have to have very streamlined processes and products because they don't have a lot of room or a lot of time; they have to be very efficient in their turnover of the rooms."
Aware of research concerning arthritis treatment alternatives to joint replacements, Whitsitt notes that S&N is also working on products that address the disease earlier in the process, potentially helping to delay the need for a hip or knee replacement.
How has the pandemic impacted S+N?
"Our business has been hurt, as have other businesses that are focused on elective surgeries. But instead of layoffs, we've implemented unique programs to support employees dealing with family COVID issues," she points out. "And we've been extremely productive working from home; it really hasn't slowed our research efforts."
In fact, they've turned the COVID challenge into an opportunity to support Church Health: "While our 3D printers weren't fully utilized during the surgery slow-down, we were able create a COVID Product Response (CPR) team - which is continuing to print 5,000 headbands and 15,000 disposable face shields for Church Health to use in their clinic and in COVID testing," she notes. "It's been a rewarding effort!"
Balancing the many demands on her time has guided her to "be present in the moment and make sure I don't neglect the very important things - family, work, community involvement, church, etc." With three children and four grandbabies to enjoy, she still makes time for summer weekends at a lake house in Lexington, supporting her husband's not-for-profit home renovation business that trains refugees and immigrants for construction careers, and for remodeling a 1940's-vintage abandoned home for their own use.
To our readers - and those she mentors - Whitsitt offers advice: "Find a career that you can be truly passionate about - and share your experience generously to guide those who follow, so they can benefit from your successes - and mistakes!"