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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (CNN) -- Imagine a computer program so clever, it senses the level of pain a patient is in and measures the exact amount of pain relief and sedative drugs they need.
A team of New Zealand engineers and medical experts is working on a device that will be able to do just that.
They hope their development will eventually be available for commercial use, potentially saving hospitals throughout the world billions of dollars in wasted drugs. It will also help speed up patient recovery.
The project began two years ago when University of Canterbury student Andrew Rudge, 25, began searching for a subject for his PhD in mechanical engineering.
His lecturer, Dr Geoff Case, had earlier met with Dr Geoff Shaw, an intensive care specialist at Christchurch Hospital, who had told him about the inherent problems in managing critically ill patients' sedative and pain relief drug dosages.
Shaw told Case that current methods of assessing pain and agitation in patients were very subjective and often resulted in over-sedation.
The two main consequences of this were extended stays in intensive care units and increased drug use -- both of which were costly.
Rudge, along with a group of other students, set to work on seeing if automatic detection would be possible, using complex mathematic formulas.
Once he established the science behind the idea was possible, he built a prototype, which involved a sensor that detects what level of agitation a patient is experiencing, using a digital video camera.
His research group is currently perfecting the sensor and the science that measures the amount of drugs that should be administered.
Rudge says although it would be technically possible, he doubts whether his device would ever administer the drugs automatically.
He believes that what is more likely to happen in reality is for the device to calculate the measurements and then ask a nurse for permission for it to administer them.
This would still free up nurses to perform other tasks as well as ensure patients are receiving the correct amount of drugs, which would contribute to quicker recovery, potentially reducing patients' stays in hospital by up to 30 percent.
This would save hospitals billions in wasted drugs, as well as make better use of bed spaces, he says.
"I have a great interest in applied problem solving, which helps people directly," says Rudge.
Chase, along with Shaw, is now supervising the research.
He says that although much of the science and technology involved is in place, it could be up to five years before it becomes a commercial reality.
"Administering the correct amount of sedatives is a commonly discussed problem in the medical world," Chase says.
"As with anything in the medical world, though, these things require a lot of independent trials and auditing to prove they are safe and this could take some time."
Chase believes the invention has the potential to be used in a vast number of areas in drug administration, including managing schizophrenia, where getting drug doses correct is also difficult.
He says the research group has received a lot of positive feedback about the idea from both medical and engineering communities.