It is not an overstatement to say that Dr. Judith M. Burnfield’s leadership is improving the quality of life for individuals transitioning from rehab environments to their homes and communities worldwide.
The director of the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals supports such transitions by innovating technologies that allow for those with limited movement to communicate and be independent.
Burnfield Forging the Way
In the 1980s and 1990s, well before “translational research” were buzz words, Burnfield embodied this notion of bridging gaps between emerging scientific discoveries and practical implementation in clinical settings.
“Often, discoveries underway in Madonna’s Institute advance care for Madonna’s patients two to three years before the technology or treatments are available beyond Madonna’s walls,” Burnfield said.
In her role as director of both the Institute and Movement and Neurosciences Center, as well as the Clifton Chair in Physical Therapy and Movement Science, Burnfield powers ongoing scientific and technological discoveries, mentors next-generation leaders, supports administrative missions, and teaches across diverse environments – clinical and academic.
Bridging the Gap
“Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I had many wonderful teachers along the line that inspired my curiosity and belief that I could make a difference in the world.”
Fittingly, Burnfield’s mother taught nursing at Niagara University in Upstate New York; her father applied his engineering acumen to solve challenges in work and home environments.
“Rehabilitation physical therapy and research truly bridge my parents’ backgrounds, but neither of them were directly involved in physical therapy,” she said. “Fate guided my exposure to physical therapy.”
As an undergrad, Burnfield was inspired by a good friend’s enthusiasm for physical therapy.
“The more I learned, the more I realized that physical therapy would enable me to bridge the health care and engineering sciences of my parents’ backgrounds into a field that involved meaningful, hands-on care and interactions to help patients regain their confidence, independence and lives,” she said.
She went on to earn her physical therapy degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and her Ph.D. in Biokinesiology from the University of Southern California. During Burnfield’s post-doctoral training at the Pathokinesiology Laboratory at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California, she was mentored by clinician-researcher, Dr. Jacquelin Perry.
“Dr. Perry and I shared a curiosity for learning and for ensuring that scientific discoveries translated into practice,” Burnfield recalled. “During that same period, I taught at the University of Southern California and Mount St. Mary’s College.”
After completing her postdoctoral studies in 2004, Burnfield was invited to join Madonna’s Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering, directing the Movement and Neurosciences Center. Three years later, Burnfield’s work expanded to leading Madonna’s Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering.
Since that time, Burnfield has debuted (and been recognized for) a series of transformative technologies.
In part, she has five rehab tech innovation-related patents to her name. Among them: the Madonna ICARE by SportsArt, a device used ‘round the world to improve independence, cardiorespiratory fitness, balance and overall well-being for those with physical disabilities and chronic conditions.
She further described the Madonna First Hope System as a technology to “enable individuals with limited movement ability and manual dexterity the capacity to control their hospital room environment and communication with nurses” (commercially known as Curbell Medical’s Assistive Control Adaptor system).
“Our core strength is not onsite mass production and distribution of products,” Burnfield explained. “As we create new technologies, we often need to build bridges with commercial partners.”
When asked about representation in the industries she serves, Burnfield said physical therapy domestically in the first half of the 20th century was led primarily by a “committed cadre of women” focused on addressing the needs of wounded soldiers and polio survivors.
“Training now includes a clinical doctorate with some therapists subsequently pursuing specialist certification and/or a research degree,” she said. “The underlying scientific foundation guiding practice has expanded and draws heavily from multiple fields such as neuroscience, biology, exercise science, biomechanics, kinesiology, and psychology.”
As the profession becomes more diverse, there is a greater capacity to address broad needs of the populations that they serve, according to Burnfield.
“The biomedical and rehabilitation engineering research environments have also evolved over the past century to include more diverse representation and perspectives,” she said.
Next on Burnfield’s horizon is launching Madonna’s Omaha Campus Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering.
“I’m really looking forward to bridging our work with that of other tenacious and innovative researchers in Nebraska and the surrounding states,” she said.
Arguably most importantly, she noted, is building a strong foundation for the Institute’s future.
“Medical advances are now able to save the lives of many individuals who would not have survived in the past,” Burnfield said. “It is incumbent upon our team to advance discoveries that will help people regain as much independence as possible.”