Medical Equipment

Medical equipment is one of those products, like pilot projects or research lab equipment, that people automatically assume is so delicate and specialized that discard and destruction have got to be accepted and even welcomed.

Maybe (but I can doubt it).

Here is a paragraph from a recent patent:

“Our society is increasingly becoming a “throw-away” society. Part of the reason modern day services, and specifically medical services, are so expensive is due to this disposability factor. A vast number of small articles are used in daily treatments and thrown away due to concerns about the ability to thoroughly sanitize. A cost-effective way to safely and consistently sanitize these objects is needed.” (See patent)

The patent deals directly with the core concern voiced by those who advocate the use of disposable medical equpment. While I cannot evaluate the efficacy of the disinfecting method being patented, it does show the kind of design change that can undercut the easy acceptance of discard in this instance.

The lesson is universal. New designs can eliminate discard. And when discard is eliminated, so that equipment will be reused many times, the design of the equipment itself can be improved to incorporate expensive features that could not be justified for equipment intended to be used once and then discarded.

A recent article illustrates another aspect of the whole question. In this report, an Indian doctor reveals that he has a program for reusing pacemakers that he retrieves from dead patients. He claims that an astounding 19% of corpses have some kind of cardiac equipment which is typically buried or incinerated with them. See the article. Four comments leap out of the article:

  • Why does this doctor have no legal right to demand that he be allowed to reuse expensive and life-giving medical equipment?
  • What about other parts such as dental crowns, stents or replacement joints? Why aren’t they being reused?
  • Why is this doctor restricted to pacemakers which still have battery life in them, assuming the battery is a relatively minor component. Why isn’t the device designed to accept replacement batteries?
  • Is it possible for new legislation to be passed that would make it mandatory for reusable, artificial body parts to be removed for reuse?

Now in February 2012, comes a talk on TED on a similar subject. The speaker works with anesthesiology machines and points out at length how they are designed to be unrepairable among other drawbacks. She emphasizes how delicately the modern machine is designed, requiring a team of biomechanicians to repair it when anything goes wrong. A doctor in Malawi became fed up with this kind of machinery and designed a far simpler machine that has already been used for 2000 operations. Every part on it can be replaced with a wrench and a screwdriver. And you thought that that complex anesthesiology equipment in your Western hospital was so demanding that it could hardly be changed. There are always available design choices to make. But first what is needed is a change in the mentality of easy wasting.

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