Medical Power Couple Launch Robot That Helps in the Labor Room

Medscape’s Medical Power Couples is a new series highlighting spouses or domestic partners prominent in healthcare. Both have achieved high-level professional success and have made significant contributions to their respective fields.

Julie Shah, PhD, and Neel Shah, MD

Neel and Julie Shah pose for a photo while in Houston. Julie was doing an internship at NASA at the time.

Ob/Gyn Neel Shah, MD, was telling his wife how challenging it was for labor and delivery nurses to make room assignments: delegating available beds, predicting the timing of patient progression from one room to another, and pairing patients with staff nurses, equipment, and resources. 

Julie Shah, PhD, a roboticist with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), compared the head nurses to air traffic controllers, but without near the decision support. Julie had previously worked for aerospace giant Boeing, where she helped design a set of algorithmic techniques to give decision support to manufacturing personnel and embed robots to aid their work.

Suddenly the Shahs had an idea.

“We got a grant together to see if we could augment the nurses by supporting them with computing,” Neel said. “We put a robot on the labor floor. And it worked.”

The robot, tested in 2018 at a Boston tertiary care center, produced high-quality recommendations accepted by nurses and physicians 90% of the time. The android was taught to observe actual performances of human tasks — what was done and not done in certain situations — and develop a scheduling policy. The Shahs and their team were the first to field a robotic system on a labor and delivery unit to aid in the coordination of resources required for patient care.

“For the first time, we were able to develop a novel machine-learning technique that could learn from demonstration or observation, heuristics, or strategies for solving resource allocation and scheduling problems, which was really exciting,” Julie said. “We were able to show also how that system could be embedded to offer decision support to reduce the cognitive burden of nurses.”

Neel and Julie joke that their first collaboration dates back to middle school when they sang together in chorus. The Shahs grew up in the same small New Jersey town and met as 14-year-olds.

Though the Shahs have known each other more than half their lives, they haven’t always lived side by side. After they married, Julie accepted an opportunity in Seattle, while Neel remained 3000 miles away in Boston.

“He does all the cooking, so I did not eat well,” Julie recalled with a laugh. “It was not great.”

“I don’t self-regulate well,” Neel adds. “I just worked 24/7. I started a nonprofit that year, so externally, it looked like I was crushing it, but…”

“He was lonely,” Julie says.

Neel and Julie Shah take a walk with their children.

Now back in the same city, the Shahs are doting parents to two toddlers ages 2 and 4, and also serve as heads of house at an MIT graduate dorm.

Julie, 39, is an associate professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She is renowned for her innovative methods for enabling fluid human-robot teamwork in time and safety critical environments such as surgery, manufacturing, and space exploration. In 2014, she was recognized by the MIT Technology Review as one of the world’s top innovators under 35, and her work on industrial human-robot collaboration was recognized as one of the 10 breakthrough technologies of 2013.

Neel, 39, is an assistant professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston and chief medical officer of Maven Clinic, a virtual clinic for women’s and family health. A scientist and entrepreneur, Neel is globally recognized for designing solutions to improve healthcare. He is founder of Costs of Care, an NGO that curates insights from clinicians and patients to help delivery systems provide better care.

He also co-founded the March for Moms Association, a coalition of organizations that works to raise public and private investment in mothers’ well-being. Most recently, Neel and his team designed TeamBirth, an intrapartum care process that aims to improve the safety and dignity of childbirth care and promote communication and teamwork.

The Shahs say their personalities are sometimes opposite, but that they balance each other well.

“Julie thinks in lists, which sometimes drives me crazy, and I think in exploding clouds, which I think drives her crazy, but the combination usually works out,” Neel said. “We seem to be good complements for each other.”

Neel and Julie pose for a photo with one of their children.

In Their Own Words

What is one food that your spouse eats that you can’t stand?

Neel: She eats raisins, and I hate raisins. Raisins are a crime against humanity. They’re wrong. The chocolate covered raisins are even grosser.

What is one parenting difference you have?

Julie: Safety. I hover around the kids around safety hazards, and Neel is very relaxed. 

What’s one quirky thing about your partner?

Neel: She has a parrot that predates our marriage. He started out as an illegal dorm bird. He just screeches and poops. If you’re developing a character in a book or a movie and you want to make them seem slightly off, you make them a bird owner. Think about it. 
Julie: He’s 19 and his name is Bolivar, after the South American revolutionary. He’s very sweet.
Neel: I live in a Hitchcock movie.

If you weren’t a physician/scientist, what is a dream job you might have?

Julie: I would be a dolphin trainer. That was my childhood dream.
Neel: I’d want to do something creative. I’ve always wanted to be a better musician. I play the guitar and piano.

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