April 2nd, 2012
03:22 PM ET

How we help health workers invent medical devices

Editor's note: Anna Young is a researcher at MIT’s Little Devices group. She works with Jose Gomez-Marquez, Founder of the Little Devices group. CNN’s The Next List profiled Jose and his work hacking toys to make affordable medical devices.

By Anna Young, Special to CNN

"For this trip to Nicaragua, you should measure success not by the number of temperature and pressure data points you guys collect from the device. What really matters is the number of design modifications from Nicaraguans that you can bring back to Boston.”

This was Jose Gomez-Marquez’s advice as our team packed and planned for a two-week trip to Ocotal, Nicaragua, to test our medical-instrument sterilization device for use in rural clinics. This solar-powered technology will ensure that even the most remote clinics have access to clean, sterile instruments to perform simple surgical procedures.


Our initial goal was to curb post-surgical infection rates and enable more procedures in these clinics, but Jose saw a much larger opportunity to invite the same nurses who would be using the device to be an integral part of the design team. Jose has an unrelenting faith that even in the most marginalized communities around the world, we will find world-class inventors just waiting for the right tools to design their own medical devices.

I joined Jose’s Little Devices lab at MIT in 2009 as a researcher and designer for the MEDIKit project, which aims to empower medical-device inventors around the world. It was clear from colored tiles on the lab ceiling and the boxes of Legos and crinkle blocks cluttering the shelves that this group was structured very differently from the Health Science and Technology labs across the street.

During long hours in the lab designing the initial MEDIKits, Jose would underscore again and again that we were not designing medical devices but building blocks that would allow health professionals around the world to invent their own appropriate medical devices. This approach to DIY health technology has the potential to build an industry of devices that will have quicker uptake around the world.

In the Little Devices lab, the MEDIKits are just the beginning of a series of technologies to unlock creativity and give isolated health technology inventors a voice.

Led by Jose’s vision, our team prepared for the trip to Nicaragua by focusing on a transparent design for the sterilization unit that was primed for local design modifications. Our four suitcases were filled with laser cut parts and all kinds of reflective material for numerous options for building the reflectors, pressure cookers and buckets to assemble the pressurization unit and loads of PVC pipes to create a stand to hold everything in place.

Nothing was finalized; instead, we traveled with versatile building block components to be experimented with in the field.

In engineering, you usually tinker with the prototype in the lab forever until you release it. We’ve turned that approach upside down. Instead of curating focus groups in the field, we’ve invested in building a real collection of satellite labs far and wide. Here, the ideas from health workers at the frontline of care can be heard far above the engineering details from our lab. More importantly, the technologies can be built and they can be used on location.

After our two-week trip, we had a device platform designed in Boston, personalized in Nicaragua, and engineered to create a sustainable solar-powered sterilization unit, Solarclave. Design input came from all over: Nurses in Jicarito built reflector panels using the Mylar from the side of potato chip bags, while a solar-technology manufacturing cooperative in Totogalpa built a modular, easy-to-maneuver stand using casters and angle bar found at their local hardware stores.

Now, while we're back in Boston running validation testing on the pressure unit, the local manufacturing team in Nicaragua is continuing to make changes to the reflector design.

Working with Jose at Little Devices has revolutionized my design strategies for medical devices. Now, when I see a mechanical toy, my natural reaction is how to think of to include it in a design. When I see an invention, I think how can this easily be shared between nurses around the world.

By empowering individual inventors, we create a hardware community that can now play a participatory role in the health technology conversation.

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    Last week my new book the Techno-Human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap, about future medical devices, was released. It should be of some interest to your readers.

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      The Techno-Human Shell is a terrific read for anyone wanting to know what medical technology has in store for us in the future.

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