Although there are many skilled and dedicated types of health care professionals, nurses are often the main point of contact between the medical establishment and a patient. You will probably spend more time with your nurse–especially in a hospital setting–than any other health care provider. Every patient’s needs are different, so it isn’t surprising that nurses sometimes improvise unique solutions to help their patients be more comfortable or recover faster.
That’s the idea guiding an innovative program called MakerNurse–an initiative backed by MIT and the Robert W. Johnson Foundation. The idea is to encourage nurses to be makers. One of the project’s cofounders, Anna Young, had found nurses in Central America making do with what they had on hand and naturally acting as makers. “We saw a nurse repair a stethoscope diaphragm with an overhead transparency,” she said. Young noted that often nurses didn’t realize the significance of their making–it was just how they got through the day.
With the MakerNurse program, Young’s group surveyed nurses across the United States and then went to five hospitals to study what nurses were making and what support would help them do even more. The study, which will be published next year, identified resourceful maker projects from nurses and even collaborations between nurses, patients, and their family caregivers. One gadget found in Massachusetts made it easier to feed a patient with a feeding tube. Young said, “It was simple, it was sturdy, and it solved a very clear problem.” It was made with material the patient and their family bought at Home Depot.
The logical conclusion: makerspaces in hospitals. Young has made it happen, and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s (UTMB) John Sealy Hospital in Galveston Texas has the first of what she hopes will be many such spaces. The UTMB MakerHealth program provides a permanent facility for nurses (and others) to build custom solutions to make their jobs and patient’s lives easier. Users can receive training and other assistance to take their ideas to reality.
I asked Young about the ramifications of making what amounts to medical devices. She replied, “Hospitals already have the processes in place to do investigational studies, and these are treated just like those studies.” She also mentioned that they ensure that appropriate materials are available for the makers. Her belief is that these makerspaces will enable nurses and others to do work that wouldn’t have the volume to warrant a large study (like the left handed arm board for cardiac patients seen in the picture above). In addition, the facilities will allow “one off” pieces (like a custom cut bandage) to be easily and precisely replicated.
An MIT spin off, Pop Up Labs, provides logistical support and training for the initiative. The makerspace will have a dedicated manager and soon will also have a “Maker in Residence” to help with designs and builds. Young says that many nurses are “modest” and need encouragement to bring their ideas forward and things like hackathons and mobile maker spaces tend to miss less vocal potential makers. The MakerHealth web site is an online community Young hopes will “bring the sharing of the Maker movement into healthcare,” and encourage more health care creations.
The videos below show more about MakerHealth, including a tour of the facility. We’ve already seen hackers make big impacts in STEM education and thanks to these initiatives, the hacker culture may start having a similar effect on hospital patients. The pioneers of the Internet probably couldn’t imagine how the net would revolutionize our world. Likewise, it is hard to know just where our culture with its emphasis on creativity, openness, and sharing will lead over time as it continues to spread beyond our traditional community. I’m excited to see where we’ll go next as hacking and making filter into the mainstream.