How DIY Medical Devices Are Changing Healthcare


José Gómez-Márquez uses toys to make affordable medical devices. A plastic gun can be to create an alarm that alerts nurses when a patient’s IV bag needs changing. And a box of Lego-like building blocks can be used to modify existing medical equipment in numerous ways, he tells CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta in this video. These MEDIKits are basically “erector sets for medical technologies,” explains Gómez-Márquez, who directs the Little Devices Lab at MIT where the kits were invented.

Gómez-Márquez and his colleagues are at the forefront of the DIY movement in healthcare. Part of a larger trend called the “maker movement,” the maker mentality combines the ingenuity of inventors, the creativity of crafters, the tenacity of hackers, and the resourcefulness of anyone else who’s ever taken matters into their own hands to find solutions. Here’s a look at how makers are changing healthcare for the better.

A brief history of the ‘maker movement’

While DIY and hacker culture may be relatively new to healthcare in the U.S., it’s long been a way of life in developing countries. “About 90 percent of medical technology that reaches poor countries is hand-me-down equipment designed for first-world facilities,” reports Make magazine. Because the devices weren’t designed to operate in these environments, they often malfunction and fail quickly. So medical staff must “hack” the equipment to make it work for them, whether it’s cutting a piece of plastic to repair a cracked stethoscope or turning a toy gun into an IV alarm, as nurses in Nicaragua did with Gómez-Márquez’s help.

While doctors in the U.S. may rarely think of or dare to modify medical devices, “in most of the developing world, doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers tinker with failing medical technology every day to fix it or make it work better,” according to Make.

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Why nurses are natural makers

Anyone who’s ever spent time in a hospital, however, knows that there is actually a specific group of healthcare workers in the U.S. who share this DIY approach. “Nurses are natural problem solvers. They cut down bandages to fit preemies. They fashion a plastic cup around an IV site to stop it from snagging clothes. …These DIY medical devices are made by nurses every day in hospitals,” states an article on the web site for MakerNurse, a program founded in 2013 by Gómez-Márquez and Anna Young.

Last September, MakerNurse established the first medical makerspace in the U.S.: MakerHealth Space, at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The space contains equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, and sewing machines. So far, projects include a new medication-delivery system, a knee-brace support, and a DIY burn bath, as described in this article in Popular Science. “Ever since Florence Nightingale, nurses and healthcare workers have done things on the fly with materials designed for other purposes,” David Marshall, chief nursing and patient care services officer at UTMB, tells the magazine. “Now they can develop those ideas near where they’re actually delivering care.”

Even the White House celebrates makers

The maker movement has made its way all the way to the White House. In June 2014, President Obama hosted the first-ever National Maker Faire and issued a call to action that “every company, every college, every community, every citizen joins us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country.” This year D.C. will celebrate the National Week of Making June 17 -23, which will feature makers from around the country in addition to federal agencies and departments.

In January, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) hosted a town hall meeting to kick off a new initiative of the HHS IDEA Lab: Invent Health.

According to Chief Technology Officer Susannah Fox, the initiative seeks to address such questions as:

“How might we empower small-scale designers, builders, and developers to find creative solutions to challenges we see across the landscape of health and human services?”

“What can we do to help build toward an Innovation Nation, where engaged and empowered individuals are at the center of healthcare?”

“What will happen when everyone has access to the tools and information they need to solve their own problems—and share their ideas with others?”

Demystifying and democratizing medical device design

What’s exciting about the maker movement in healthcare is that the possibilities are endless and can come from anywhere. From low-tech solutions like cutting up corn cushions for diabetics with foot sores, to high-tech solutions like 3D-printed prosthetics, to home-spun solutions like one computer science undergrad’s walking aid for the blind, “makers” are solving real problems for patients, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional medical equipment.

And in many cases, patients themselves are the makers: consider this story about a 14-year-old cystic fibrosis patient who designed a way to quickly dry her nebulizer, thanks to a “Mobile Makerspace” at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. Certain patient populations are especially inclined toward homespun solutions: Dr. Jeremy A. Greene, a physician and historian at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times, “patients with diabetes [have] a long history of tinkering with existing technology, even in ways that [are] not officially sanctioned.”

The maker movement demystifies and democratizes medical device design, says Gómez-Márquez, who gets his inspiration from trips to the toy store. “Often we look at these medical devices and we think they’re a black box and you can’t crack it open, that you need an expert to even take a screwdriver at it. You may not have the courage to hack a $1,000 device, but you definitely have the courage to hack something that’s $5. And if you add a little ingenuity, it becomes something that’s as powerful as that $1,000 medical device.”

To find out more about the maker movement in healthcare, search the hashtags #InventHealth and #MakeHealth on Twitter, and check out the list of resources curated by Susannah Fox of the HHS Idea Lab.

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