With the right tools, anyone can use their creativity to invent or re-imagine devices that heal.
For the past six years, I’ve traveled the globe to explore—and invent—do-it-yourself (DIY) health technologies and understand how to best bridge the “maker movement” and health care to bring tangible solutions directly to the bedside.
Makers are the tinkerers, inventors, and everyday people who mash up old-school crafting with computer wizardry to put a new spin on common products or build new things—from kettles and toasters to robots and drones. With an explosion of personal technology such as 3D printers and microcontrollers, and a shift toward open communities of practice, where people freely share their ideas and designs to be replicated or modified, a whole culture of making has emerged. Now, anyone with a DIY mindset can shape, form, assemble, and transform objects using their own hands-on skills and ingenuity.
And it’s happening in healthcare. There is a growing community of “stealth innovators” who experiment, modify and create medical devices.
So, who are these medical makers?
Throughout my travels, one thing has been consistent: Nurses are quietly tinkering with everyday medical devices and hacking materials from the supply closet to create new tools to care for their patients.
For the past two years, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, my colleagues and I have focused on uncovering nurse making in U.S. hospitals to identify resources that could help bring their ideas to fruition and lead to improvements in patient care.
In our explorations, we have found nurses whose making helped reduce costs and improve patient outcomes. Yet, because their inventions have no billing code or published research behind them, they go completely unrecognized by the system. So, we started to imagine what might happen if we moved their prototyping and ideas out of the supply closet and into the spotlight—and gave them access to the same tools and materials used by professional designers and engineers, radically democratized by the maker movement.
Last month, we brought these tools and materials directly to the bedside. We opened the doors to the country’s first medical maker space on a patient floor of John Sealy Hospital at UTMB in Galveston, Texas. Although nurses at UTMB spearheaded the project, the makerspace is open to all medical staff and health professions students, and patients and caregivers are invited to join providers in co-creating tools and devices. Stocked with equipment ranging from pliers and sewing needles to 3D printers and laser cutters, the makerspace also includes a new class of healthcare prototyping tools not found in your average makerspace: modular “vital signs” construction sets, sterilizible materials, biocompatible adhesives, and safety procedures for scaling prototypes.
This is a culture shift. We’re not just reinventing the provider’s instrument bag. We’re re-instrumenting a hospital. And we’re reinventing healthcare. Through medical making, those on the frontlines can develop solutions and introduce new hardware into the care-delivery process faster than a traditional medical device company. Closer to the patient than a biomedical engineer, they can deliver truly personalized medicine and n=1 devices.
We are continuing to develop new tools and resources to help providers, patients, families, caregivers and others “in the trenches” make health. Our new MakerHealth Create site, which launches on November 19, is our first step to turning more ideas into practical devices. And helping bring makers, their devices and their patients out of the shadows.
My hope is that one day, your doctor prescribes not just a pill, but a blueprint for making an easy-to-open pill box. And you go not just to a pharmacy, but to a craft store with your occupational therapist. And that if you have an idea for improving healthcare, you go to a medical makerspace and make it!
It’s time to democratize innovation. When we all take part in devising solutions to improve health, we will accelerate a Culture of Health in this country.