Makerspaces and the Future of Healthcare

July 22, 2015 | BIT Magazine Bangkok-based makerspace Maker Zoo just recently gave a talk at the invitation of Bangkok's Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health (QSNICH). The talk was meant to give an introduction to healthcare professionals about the tools and techniques used by makers to develop prototypes at breakneck speed and for a fraction of the cost of traditional processes and to talk a little about the potential collaboration between healthcare institutions and makerspaces.

Bangkok, Thailand's Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health (QSNICH).

Makerspaces have 3D printers, open source microcontrollers, teams of people adept at 3D design, programming, electronics, and fabrication. They regularly work on projects for fun bringing together a wide range of technical expertise, and many makerspaces including Maker Zoo, provide product development services meaning they have experience taking a client's problem or idea, and transforming it into a practical, useful product.

While the nature of a hospital's problems are so much more serious because often life and limb literally depend on solutions working effectively and reliably, the process of producing a solution is not all that different than producing a prototype for any other kind of product.

And because healthcare is an area that effects us all sooner or later, makerspaces channeling some of their talent toward accelerating and improving it makes perfect sense.

At the end of Maker Zoo's talk three projects were already tentatively lined up. A heart surgeon wanted to use 3D printing to help make models of children's hearts to plan for surgeries. A medical technician wanted help realizing her design for a device to help control bleeding after catheterization. She had already in fact sent the design to Maker Zoo before the talk, where it was transformed into a 3D design and printed out in 3D the night before. After the talk, problems with the design were worked out and a second iteration already put on the drawing board. Finally, Maker Zoo staff visited the intensive care unit.

The ICU at a children's hospital is heartbreaking. When we think of children, we think of them running, laughing, playing, going to school, and enjoying their lives. Seeing them in critical condition, not moving, not even conscious really drives home what is at stake and who will be impacted the most if healthcare can be improved at the same speed and drop in cost as other fields of technology.

With and without a frame to attach the string.
For QSNICH ICU staff, leveling beds so the child's heart is at the same level as certain pieces of equipment is a critical but tedious task. Staff had been using a bubble level on a string to accomplish this task, but unfortunately, they only have one plastic frame to hold one bubble level. They need ten.

For a makerspace, a missing piece of plastic is easily remedied with about 5-10 minutes of 3D design, and perhaps another 1-2 hours of 3D printing with another iteration or two afterward to get the design perfect. In other words, the problem QSNICH's staff has been dealing with for weeks or months could have been solved in a single day.

We've talked about a children's hospital in the United States that brought 3D printing in-house to help print out the specific physiology of patients to help plan for difficult surgeries and speculated on the utility and practicality of a hospital using 3D printing for R&D. For QSNICH, in just one day, we saw 3 problems that could be easily solved by 3D printing and rapid prototyping.

If a hospital is able to solve its problems quickly and cheaply in-house, that saves the hospital's budget for higher salaries, additional talent to be brought in, and/or reduced fees for patients making better healthcare more affordable without financial schemes, insurance, or other bureaucratic "fixes."

For makerspaces, the chance to have skilled healthcare professionals share their experiences and ideas, helps designers and makers learn and grow their skill sets. It also gives designers and makers a chance to directly invest in their own healthcare, because solutions they come up with today, might be used to treat them or someone they love in the near future.

The e-NABLE project is already a proof-of-concept regarding open source research and development applied to a human health and accessibility challenge, being solved by makers and makerspaces around the world. 

For Maker Zoo in Bangkok, it's only been 3 months and already it has begun producing prosthetic limbs for at least one user, laboratory equipment for a local university, and now is working on several projects for Bangkok's children's hospital. As Maker Zoo and other makerspaces begin walking down this path, and the skills and tools used at makerspaces start crossing over into other essential fields, we can see a future where we are directly effecting and investing in everything we depend on in our daily lives, from food and energy, to transportation and even healthcare.

Do you have a makerspace in your community "making things that matter?" What problems could you solve at your local makerspace?

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