March 30th, 2012
04:35 PM ET

Make your own medical device! Why not?

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.

Post by:
Filed under: Science • Social change • Tech • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
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    June 26, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • medvirtue

      I did. I've developed medical devices and I've been awarded for some. But I need a partner with money to prototype and fully patent those.
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  22. J. Random Driveby

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    June 4, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      It costs as much as it does because drug companies spend millions on R&D for drugs and testing. They want to recoup their money and make a profit. It sells for $6 in Bangkok because they don't have money like the United States. If drug companies could only charge $6 for all meds then we would still be using aspirin and herbs to treat many illnesses.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
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        June 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
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        July 18, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
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      July 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  23. UtahProf

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    June 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
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    May 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
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    April 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
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  38. scir91onYouTube

    this looks like a hobby of a sort, nothing more. a good piece of media to sell a story and adspace by cnn. not applicable in real life. i'd rather have industrial grade and quality (remember these are TOYS, not tested for reliability and durability as real medical hardware) in my operating room/hospital bed.

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  39. Blueprint Earth

    Invigorating piece – would like to extend these innovations from medical devices out to off-the-grid innovations – for example the solar run ice chest – also, I volunteer at a local children's hands on science museum (Maritime Explorium) – and this has inspired me to help develop a repurposing activity/exhibit. Super Kudos to this great innovator.

    April 1, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  40. Blueprint Earth

    I volunteer at a local children's hands on museum http://www.maritimeexplorium.org, where this type of thinking and innovation are nurtured. I call it our Sanctuary for an Inquisitive Mind. What else can be created with that solar run ice chest? Could that be used just for regular use? Yes it could – I'm drawn to all the "off the grid" innovations that free the user of expense and an outlet. Just marvelous. Super Kudos!

    April 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
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    Awsome creativity. Highly recommended to view. Thanks CNN, MIT, Jose, Dr. Gupta

    April 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  42. joycecom

    Fascinating piece and projects congrats on the innovation! What dawned on me was the amazing opportunities for retired medical and health professionals to tie in with retired engineers/chemists etc to help spread these POP UP LABS around the globe. REAL-TIME virtual training could be invaluable and we could put together all of that retired brainpower and perhaps even set up some kind of special funds. I'm working on an accelerator for startups founded by one person 50 or over so I'd love to tie in with this Jose and I have excellent contacts in Guatamala, Colombia and Ecuador also

    April 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
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    March 31, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • Sunny~

      Oh, THIS custom innovation is EASY – no MIT grad students required:

      Take 3 feet – one meter if you prefer – of Heavy Duty Reynolds Wrap, fold in half crosswise (for extra strength), place atop Avser Bastian's head and form it into a dome (tucking under the raw edges for style and comfort)...all done - the world's problems are solved. :)

      April 1, 2012 at 2:31 am | Reply
  44. Really?

    I watched this story and was confused. The invention shown was a lego board that you could arrange micro fluid medical test panels too. These testing plates still have to be obtained from the medi manufacturers and cannot be produced without highly expensive technology. This article is very misleading, in essence this guy has invented new package out of lego to hold existing pharmaceutical devices.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • Matthew

      YOu missed the point, the kits themselves are comparatively inexpensive. So yes, you buy the kit and match it with other toys to make what you need. The call is for communities to come together and pull this off, not individuals.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • Really?

      I just don't see the point in sticking blood testing panels to some lego. Why not save the money spent on lego and buy more of the blood testing panels? They are the real medical devices and you can't get them from a toy store.

      March 31, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
      • steve

        Think like a "child" and you will!!

        April 9, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Sunny~

      It's set up as a color coded "kit" to make it easier for anyone to use (correctly). The legos and foam also keep the test panel modules secure in a non-rusting, non-breakable portable container. Don't forget, these are for third-world applications. Transportation is generally rough as is the climate. And with the bright colors, they're less apt to misplace or lose "parts".

      April 1, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
    • Nouredine

      16a13635108We're a group of volunteers and oneping a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable info to work on. You've done an impressive job and our whole community will be thankful to you. 18d

      April 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  45. john

    Earlier this week, I read an article stating that Americans want more federal oversight of medical device developers to reduce device failures. Now Americans are glorifying DIY medical devices. Are you kidding me? The whole reason medical devices are so expensive is government regulation. I am well aware that this kit is for developing nations, which is great. But hearing Americans claim that DIY medical devices are what we need for affordable healthcare, while also calling for increased government regulation is not only myopic and stupid, but it's hypocritical. The root cause of the issue isn't corporate greed or big government politicians, it's a public that is incapable or unwilling to comprehend the complexity of such topics. More government regulation = less failures = high costs, less regulation = more failures = lower costs. Which one do you want? You can't have the best of both worlds and not expect any drawbacks. Try to think about those issues for more than 5 seconds and peel back the layers of complexity before coming to stupid conclusions and posting your comments.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • Sunny~

      I'll take the DIY kits, thank you. I'm more concerned with AFFORDABLE healthcare and testing than over-regulated so-called 'quality' at this point since I have no access to ANY affordable healthcare now.

      It's a trade-off, sir – one that I'm willing to gamble with. Not everyone feels that way, but for some of us, we'd appreciate at least an option.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:52 am | Reply
    • gwen

      For just a moment, step off of this great big planet earth and take a look at how approx. 80 % of the population is living.
      Then take another moment to look at the other 20
      Kukdo's to Jose and team for looking outside the box, and realizing there is a global problem and attempting to find a way to help. To me, it is as simple as that. We can argue over FDA rules etc forever.
      Things are not going to change quickly with our healthcare-but the other 80 % deserve some sense of health care. They deserve to be able to take an aerosol treatment via a bicycle pump when they cannot get their breath. The medikits seem to be a work in progress. Kudos. It is much better to try to find a solution to help the other 80 % than to sit and talk about it or to only talk about improving our healthcare.
      We have become a very small world, this planet earth. So the folks in a developing country don't take their TB meds, the TB becomes resistant to conventional antibiotics–we all share the resistant strain.
      Innovation at it's best. Thanks.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  46. Natty

    Its a disgrace. Get the funding from MIT and develop products and concepts for "developing" countries. US is under developed now. People can't afford healthcare, housing or repay loans here. Lots of social problems too. Still on a high though.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  47. Bert BigDongler

    This will most likely be made illegal under Obamacare. You will be mandated to purchase all medical devices from minority-owned, Obama-campaign contributing firms. That pacemaker you are madated to purchase might not actually work, but that is not of consequence here.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • facedate

      oh that's just preposterous. why are you so bitter, somebody with your level of intellect is likely the primary beneficiary of this generous government handout– so you're welcome you ugly ingrate.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  48. unowhoitsme

    Brilliant! It's about saving lives at an affordable cost.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  49. Oodoodanoo

    Medical devices are so expensive because they're in the class of equipment that is not allowed to fail. Sure, you could build a defibrillator for pretty cheap if you didn't care if conked out 1% of the time. But that's unacceptable when it's your dad lying on the ground.

    Even the parts for making reliable equipment are big, bulky, slow, and expensive. If we could use cell phone parts to make them, then we could ride the economies of scale, and it'd be really cheap. But no. We have to use specially-made stuff that few others want. So it's always behind the times and expensive.

    Furthermore, you can't just say you're reliable and be done with it. You need FDA approval, which means a lot of red tape. That red tapes it there for a reason, because otherwise companies have every incentive to lie about their reliability.

    The MIT group is right to target the developing world, where regulations and expectations are less. But unless the American public moves to accept sometimes-failing life support equipment, we'll never be able to deregulate. And we'll never have cheap medical equipment.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • Lili

      My fave. is trying to pry the info out for a good 10 mintues and then they say yo, heres da sheet right here well, atleast they have one.btw, love the blog. my partner and i are loving it.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:26 am | Reply
  50. jim

    great genius person, we need more lpeople like him.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  51. palintwit

    Most people don't realize it but the Sarah Palin University Medical Center is a leader in the development of medical devices. Their latest gadget is a d- bag that can double as a water balloon. What will those Palins think of next !!

    March 31, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  52. uhyu

    Maybe Obamacare won't bankrupt the country afterall.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • facedate

      ignorant comments, again. i wish we could just delete people like you, now that's an initiative i'd support.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
      • bambam

        lemme guess, obama lover?

        March 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Conroy

      16a13635158You actually make it apepar really easy along with your presentation however I find this topic to be really something that I think I'd by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely huge for me. I'm looking ahead for your next put up, I will try to get the grasp of it! 18d

      April 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  53. Atomico

    Straightforward technology is what we need in today's society. The same goes for any trades, for instance, lawyers in their use of legal jargon.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  54. Sciguy73

    $2 worth of legos pretending to be a cheap medical device inside of a $100 pelican case. Brilliant.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • Sunny~

      The Legos aren't the device. They're the bases for the devices.
      And the price sure beats $2500 or more for a "formal" system.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:56 am | Reply
      • Wats

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        April 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  55. AGuest9

    An EMG from a Commodore 64? I've seen it done. A neurologist (who also has code still flying aboard F-15s) used one in his office.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
  56. indusprinz

    Nice thought process here but I must say its a bit over simplistic and naive. I worked for a big and slow medical behemoth once. I believe in American Spirit of innovation and unfortunately the cost of medical innovation is high not just because of industrial – medical complex but also the very high regiulatory thresholds and government bodies like FDA. Since human life is of utmost value there is a need for "effective" regulatory functions otherwise you may have events similar to "financial innovations" as in the Wall street, causing significant loss of lives. So without streamlining the regulatory process, there still would be a sig cost rider to even simplistic and inexpensive innovation as mentioned here.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • AGuest9

      While I agree with you, "developing countries" don't have their own FDA.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • Robert

      Screw the FDA and regulatory process.

      I live in Ecuador now. Nothing like that here and everyone is happy and healthy. In fact much healthier than the average person in the states.

      Nobody dies here due to bad meds, overdoses or bad equipment.

      Here we don't need prescriptions on most meds. Works great. Only narcotics and psychotropic drugs require prescriptions. And the meds are cheap and they are made by most of the companies in the states.

      Why is it in the states you must pay a doctor $150 bucks to get a $5.00 prescription for an antibiotic when you scratch your finger? And if you pay with your insurance card the prescription is $8.00.

      The F'n FDA works for the drug companies. Simple.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  57. Anonymous

    It is a very good initiative. Perhaps, Americans will start demystifying physicians and this is the very beginning of lowering health care costs.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
    • AGuest9

      My last appointment with a cardiologist, I discussed the clotting cascade with him and gave him my "system of systems" philosophy of how it all works. He asked if I was an engineer. :)

      March 31, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  58. JKJ

    Hats off to Dr. Gomez-Marquez for addressing a vexing problem with a novel approach. This is the way most major problems facing the human race have been solved.

    That said, there is a reason in most countries, developed and developing alike, that medical devices are heavily regulated. It is because improperly designed, manufactured or utilized medical devices can have precisely the opposite effect that their inventor intended. They can harm human health rather than improve it. There are many many horrifying examples of this, but one that is particularly instructive is the that of Vitek and their Proplast implant. Do you own Google search on those two names. What you will read there are account after account of a device seemingly intelligently designed from teflon to fix issues in patient's jaws, but which instead led to severe long-term health issues in thousands of patients. And this happened here, in the US at a time when our devices were more lightly regulated. This is one of the realities of 'playing' with medical devices, particularly permanent implants.

    And the costs to human health of such issues extend further than the patients directly impacted. Events like this lead to an increasingly burdensome regulation to avoid similar issues in the future. In that environment, well-meaning companies that are intelligently designing and manufacturing devices to improve human health cannot get them to market because of extreme regulatory barriers to catch the one Vitek burden all participants.

    JKJ

    March 31, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  59. redtapehater111

    Awesome article! Everyone watch how this lab's potentially ground breaking innovations are stomped on by the bureaucratic FDA, CMS, big-pharma, etc. Just read some of the crap in this post! Some clown called "dangerous and illegal" tries to lobby against a lifesaving innovation.... I'm sure lawyers are drooling over the chance to sue you guys. My advice, keep pushing along! Don't give in to the slime and the people waiting with their fingers crossed for you to break the "rules". ObamaCare wants to blame health care costs on "greedy" nurses and doctors... But when you read comments like those posted here it's easy to see that cost comes from innovation-stopping slime!!!!

    March 31, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  60. gulfshorewriter

    look at littledevices.org for examples.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  61. John

    Brilliant out of the box thinking . There are going to be a lot of people who just see all of the challenges who will through up road blocks and see none of the opportunity for the greater good. Health care in this country needs to be shaken up from the top to the bottom. The US government provides substantial subsides to the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, that is US tax dollars at work. When a new medication or medical device enters the market the revenue streams start for years leading to the next multi billion corporation. I would ask why can not more of the research and development requirements conside low tecnology solutions in new development as major component for new awards. Then new inventors will step up to the challenge.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
  62. gulfshorewriter

    Go to their web site at littledevices.org to see more and examples. I love it.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
  63. cpc65

    A "medical device" that's also a poses a choking hazard to small children? Cool!

    March 31, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply
    • Macuz

      16a12635100You can definitely see your slilks within the paintings you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart. 18d

      April 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  64. NeedExamples

    I agree with rebwater – it's difficult (at least for me) to imagine how these MEDIKits might be put to use. Without concrere examples it all sounds hypothetical.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
  65. rebwater

    Intriguing article as a general topic. In the article..and especially in the video...it would have been really nice to see actual examples of working devices. Or even just one working device. All of the what-if and maybe-you-can-do-this stuff is nice and shows many possibilities...and it goes on and on. But that represents a thin (and long) layer to the story that screams for more information to be provided. If there are successes, I'd love to see them. Otherwise, it is just decent general info...and I hope that something can come of it and that we could see the actual triumphs as well.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply
    • kmart

      you will see! Watch cnn on sundy at 2p for Jose's full half-hour profile

      March 31, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  66. Illegal and Dangerous

    The only DIY medicines I can think of are those that are illegal, such as heroin and cocaine. These are made using dangerous and unpredictable chemicals in unsanitary conditions. As for making medical devices out of old toys good luck with that. Even a homemade nebuliser is likely to waste much of your medication before it can be inhaled. And at worst cause you a respiratory infection due to poor hygiene.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:02 am | Reply
    • Anti-PharmaCartel

      Illegal and Dangerous is undoubtedly part of the vast Pharmaceutical Cartel or medical appliance makers. There are devices that can be built for less than $20 which can CURE all sorts of diseases. The PhD in a medical field who came up with this device was harassed and eventually jailed in her 70's. The PharmaCartel and related medical companies will resort to extreme measures to eliminate anyone or anything that can truly CURE a disease or condition. Their focus is only on treating (not curing) you for a lifetime of income from you. I'm surprised this article even made it to CNN. It probably only got past due to the focus on third world countries which cannot afford the insanely expensive med's and devices they sell.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • steve

      You ever watch the movie "Tucker" ? You would learn the stablishment does not want this.. but the point is just that...break all rules

      April 9, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  67. Guest

    Watch what happens to your DIY costs when the FDA comes calling

    March 31, 2012 at 7:27 am | Reply
    • PantyRaid

      They will ban toys.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:30 am | Reply
  68. guest

    it's nice to think that toys are the answer but you have to pay for sterility and hopefully something durable and not reinventing the wheel when you are sick or disabled, unfortunately the capitalists who kick you when you're down doesn't help the humanity side of healthcare but I don't think making medical toy prototypes is that innovative of a real life solution. My kid plays Legos and I am not going to use his toy robot as a medical device, things need to be tested and cleaned and etc. This article doesn't seem brilliant to me.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:09 am | Reply
    • guest

      toys are a start but I've built a few robots in my time and worked on cars, like Edison says you'll learn 99 ways of how not to do something before you find the right way. Testing takes forever.

      March 31, 2012 at 6:12 am | Reply
  69. Sunny~

    OH! Now THIS is what I've been ranting about: TRULY "Affordable Healthcare"...not just for overseas, but here in the USA.

    I'll take 1 of each, if you please. :)

    You and your team are remarkable! I've always been a proponent of DIY, adaptation, and innovation (as needed) – which has served me well for most of my life. If I was granted a 'do-over' backing up about 30 or 40 years, I'd charm my way into your labs and maybe even contribute suggestions for 'parts'. (Yep, I was the little kid – yep, a GIRL ~gasp~ – who disassembled every mechanical toy I ever owned...before it even got scuffed or broke, lol. Most of the time I 'fixed' it better than the original: 'customized', I called it).

    Keep at it! You're making a difference in this world - something that should be every persons goal.

    xox Love ya for what you're doing! :)

    March 31, 2012 at 5:48 am | Reply
    • Sunny~

      PS "we are analog" – BRILLIANT statement – something that's been forgotten over the years!

      March 31, 2012 at 5:53 am | Reply
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