Editor's Note: Jose Gomez-Marquez is the Program Director for Innovations in International Health at MIT and heads up the Little Devices group, where he uses toy parts to create inexpensive medical devices for developing countries. Watch The Next List’s full profile on Jose Gomez-Marquez, Sunday July 15th at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.
By Jose Gomez-Marquez, Special to CNN
Have you gotten caught up in the endless healthcare debate that can lead to comparing our healthcare system with France, the UK, or even Cuba? Our work in medical device research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed to healthcare lessons in unexpected places: Nicaragua, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and even suburban hacker spaces in America. What they have in common is their development of do-it-yourself (DIY) medical technology.
We are and have always been a nation of makers. Along the way, someone told us that healthcare technology was off the table. But we have the technology, the hardware, and the prototyping resources to change that and bring down healthcare costs. Now, we have to recruit everyday inventors that are not part of the conventional “medical industrial complex” -- the types of inventors we find all over the developing world, saving lives every day.
Think about your daily interactions with medical technology: Have you ever to replaced your glucometer strips without prescription insurance ($80), bought an asthma inhaler in cash ($100), or walked out of the emergency room wondering type of engineering marvel causes crutches to cost as much $170? These are frequent characters in the day in the life of our healthcare system. We spend approximately 17% of our GDP in healthcare. Shinier medical devices and newer medications can offer improved outcomes, but they represent a primary contributor to rising costs according to Medicare. The Congressional Budget Office published a report last year that points a pricier-is-better mentality when it comes to medical care. We are in an upwards costs spiral.
Our Little Devices group at MIT has logged thousands of miles to find and empower individuals in places that simply cannot afford this spiral. Instead of charity and aid, they resort to invention. We call them “MacGyver nurses and doctors”: men and women with everyday medical inventions in hospital wards in some the poorest places in the world.
Unlike our modern day American Edison’s, they shy away from showing off their inventions, embarrassed by the prototyping hack. They lack the stature to publish in meaningful journals, and they are left out of the conversation that dictates what medical equipment looks like. So we give them tools that include toy helicopters, Lego blocks, engineering couplings, and a variety of biosensors that add to up something called MEDIKits. These erector sets for medical technology aim to democratize the invention process in healthcare.
We’re now excited about bringing that process back home. It represents the convergence of a growing “maker sector” and the increasing costs of medical technologies. It’s an exciting clash where DIYers can offer their inventive nature to a healthcare sector that is desperately in need of being more lean. The lean healthcare research and development infrastructure means that your engineering supply shop is replaced by your corner toy store; your chemicals can often be harvested from your pharmacy; and the thousands of app developers dedicated to the next social network can pay more attention to clinical apps.
Washington, healthcare management consultants and systems experts are striving to come up with more models that make sense of a broken system. At Little Devices group, we propose models where more communities can come together to create devices that you can hold in your hand, that can heal and that you can invent. We have healthcare workers who need the tools that can empower them to invent. We have a Maker movement that can be inspired to unleash their creative power towards health. And we have patients who need to be confident that they can have more participatory role in creative devices, in selecting ones which make financial sense, and calling out bloated prices when they can become more informed how their inner workings function.
An injection of DIY medical technology in our system allows asthma patients to have $10 nebulizers powered by bike pumps, $20 digital scales that SMS your weight to a doctor (instead of $200), and rapid diagnostics that are modular, selective, and affordable through paper tests that are reasonable and not bundled with machines that costs thousands of dollars. Our research shows that DIY medical technology can be empowered through communities that share toolkits and processes. Not everyone can go back to engineering, medical and design school. Think of Legos and your favorite construction set. Your prototypes have components that form languages of design. They have limits to the versatility thanks to the degrees of freedom of the construction. And they are invariably hacked by power users which leads to breakthrough inventions. These elements can create conversations between communities not just in the digital world, but the analog world.
After all, whether we are inventors are patients or both, we are analog, just like a toy helicopter or your next DIY medical hack.