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Endocrinologist, University Hospital Galway
Professor of medical device technology, National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG)VIEW PROFILE
Derek O’Keeffe, M.B., B.Ch., M.D., Ph.D. (ENDO ’15), calls himself a physicianeer. One might call him the Energizer Bunny — he keeps going and going and going. He says he learned an important mantra during postdoctoral training at Harvard: “Don’t just talk about it — get up and do it.” In addition to training in his native Ireland, he has trained at Oxford University in England, the University of New South Wales in Australia, Lomnosov University in Russia, Harvard and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He’s not done yet — he’s planning to pursue an M.B.A. in 2021. He combines clinical practice with an engineering background to develop innovative devices that solve problems encountered in medical practice. He’s a black belt tae kwan do instructor, triathlete, pilot, advanced scuba diver and expert gardener. Dr. O’Keeffe subscribes to Michelangelo’s motto “Ancora imparo” — I am still learning.
“Mayo Clinic is a fantastic place to work. The staff represent the very best of the world’s minds in clinical medicine, research and education. They’re curious, hungry and open for new knowledge. They want the very best for their patients and to teach the next generation of students.”
I have always been interested in how things work. As a child, I remember finding a blackbird with a broken wing in my backyard, reading how to make a splint and then fixing the bird. As a teenager, when my dad bought a new TV, I took the old one apart to figure out how it worked. I managed to put it back together, but he always jokes that it subsequently only worked in black and white! In high school, I became interested in engineering and did a degree in electronic engineering. At the end of that program, I did a medical project that introduced me to the clinical domain, and I really liked it. Then I completed a master’s degree in computer engineering, followed by a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Over those postgraduate years, I designed, simulated, built and clinically tested an exoskeleton medical device for stroke patients to stimulate their leg muscles in the right sequence to improve their gait. It was a complex and fascinating project that required multimodal skills.
Then at a biomedical science program in Moscow, I met faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who asked me to give a workshop on my Ph.D. project in Boston. While at MIT, I was invited by Harvard faculty to do postdoctoral work there. I was subsequently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard. The people there were amazing — interested in innovation, especially the intersection of engineering and medicine. They encouraged me to consider becoming a physician to identify the important problems from the patient’s perspective and then to have the technological and clinical skills to help them.
It was a big decision and, in life, it’s so easy to not do things that challenge you — not to leave your comfort zone. But, with my new mantra, I decided to just do it. So I sold my car and everything I owned and went to medical school at the National University of Ireland Galway.
After an internal medicine residency in Ireland, I went to Mayo Clinic for an endocrinology fellowship.
Tim O’Brien, M.D. (ENDO ’93), who is a faculty member at the University of Ireland Galway and a Mayo Clinic Distinguished Alumni (2019), trained at Mayo Clinic in the ‘90s along with Sean Dinneen, M.D. (I ’91, ENDO ’94, member, Mayo Clinic Alumni Association Board of Directors). Tim stayed on the Mayo Clinic staff for a couple of years before returning to Galway to head up the medical school. He brought the Mayo Clinic values here and helped to bring our medical system up to the Mayo Clinic standard. He also established the link that allowed Irish clinical graduates to spend time in residency at Mayo Clinic. That link allowed me to train at Mayo Clinic — the paragon of health care.
Mayo Clinic is a fantastic place to work. The staff represent the very best of the world’s minds in clinical medicine, research and education. They’re curious, hungry and open for new knowledge. They want the very best for their patients and to teach the next generation of students.
I had a remarkable time at Mayo. It’s a fertilized environment — amazing things can grow there.
I saw the Gonda Building auditorium and thought it was fantastic. It reminded me of the bridge of the Star Trek enterprise. I was impressed with the infrastructure, which communicates, “We’ve got this.”
Most in the Mayo Clinic Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, & Metabolism are international leaders in their field. They encouraged me to knock on their doors and talk to them. There were no artificial barriers between levels. Bill Young, M.D. (ENDO ’84), was a brilliant mentor in both my clinical practice and research, and we continue to collaborate. Yogish Kudva, M.B.B.S. (I ’95, ENDO ’98), also was an excellent mentor in digital health research. Working with him and the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, we received a Mayo Clinic grant for delivering diabetes care remotely.
The knowledge and contacts I made at Mayo Clinic gave me a priceless toolkit to improve patient care. Like my peers, I brought back to my country the values that I learned at Mayo. With Prof. O’Brien and Prof. Dinneen, we have endeavored to practice the Mayo Clinic ethos here in Ireland. I like to think of the traditional three shields — patient care, education and research — represented as a shamrock.
Be open to new ideas, especially ones that challenge your thinking, and take input from everyone from the senior professor to the first-year medical student.
Be curious. Ask interesting questions. Broaden your skills, and keep your mind open to new experiences, disciplines, colleagues and domains. Be energetic. I’d always pick someone who is energetic with good grades over someone with great grades. If you’re energetic, you have passion and will get things done.
Michelangelo’s motto was “Ancora imparo” — I am still learning, and I think this is the only way to keep growing — stay humble and hungry for knowledge. For example, I’m beginning an M.B.A. next year. I want to learn new skills to help me be a better manager and leader.
I am a physicianeer (physician/engineer). In addition to being an endocrinologist at the University Hospital Galway, I’m the professor of medical device technology at the National University of Ireland Galway. I regularly combine my skills in clinical care and engineering to solve interesting problems.
A patient of mine, who unfortunately went blind from diabetes complications, commented one day that they found the traditional white cane quite cumbersome. Therefore, I recently developed a “Jedi glove” device to substitute for the white cane. If the wearer gets too close to something, the little finger of the glove starts to vibrate. The closer the wearer gets to an object, the more fingers of the glove vibrate. They can literally “feel the force” of what’s around them! The glove uses ultrasound sensors like a bat and provides haptic feedback so that the user can figure out their spatial environment.
I recently developed a handheld point-of-care device that uses the electromagnetic spectrum to determine when a nasal gastric tube has been properly placed in the stomach — a faster alternative to having an X-ray to confirm tube placement.
I also developed Bluetooth software for mobile phones to alert people when they’ve been in proximity with someone for more than five minutes. This application is COVID-19 related and reminds people about physical distancing. If you’re in proximity of two meters of another person for five minutes, your phone will vibrate. We have used this technology at our hospital in Ireland during the pandemic.
I’m working on another COVID-19 related project with my colleagues at MIT. We’re using artificial intelligence and speech recognition analysis to triage patients suspected of Covid-19 infection based on their cough or acoustic fingerprint.
A project I did recently was with my stellar fellowship collaborator Spyridoula Maraka, M.D. (CTSA ’16, ENDO ’16; University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences), published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. It involved the first delivery of insulin by drone BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) in a regulated airspace. Last year, Ireland was shut down due to a snowstorm. Some patients were snowbound on their farms and couldn’t get to the clinic to pick up insulin. People need lifesaving medications during natural disasters and pandemics when travel is difficult or not recommended. We provided a proof of concept that we can deliver goods or medicine by drone autonomously. We also developed a drone that can carry germicidal UV light. Imagine a fleet of UV light drones that fly around and clean a deserted airport terminal, a hospital or a shopping center and then dock to recharge.
My friends often joke that my career goal should be to one day return to Krypton, but I will settle for enjoying what I do and being good at it. A mix of patient care and innovation —identifying problems in health care, figuring out how to use technology to fix them and helping patients is very satisfying.
I love to travel. I’ve been to 110 countries. I love exploring different cultures and perspectives and immersing myself in new environments. People always ask me where is the best place I’ve been, and I always reply “out of my comfort zone.”
I also love sports. I am a black belt tae kwan do instructor, and I participate in triathlons, marathons and scuba diving. My new hobby is gardening, and I am delighted that I got a design accepted at a national garden competition — so I can literally say I continue to grow!
I was a radio and nightclub deejay for five years and have visited Timbuktu!
See past New Chapter stories here.