London hosted the Wired Health conference last week, where speakers framed their conversations around how innovations in healthcare are driving the industry forward.
In previous years, the exhibition hall of the conference was full of gadgets used for self-monitoring and tracking. With the advent of wearables such as the Fitbit, we have become preoccupied with tracking our own health data.
But one of the gaps in this technology that has yet to be bridged is how we as individual patients are able to share our own self-monitored data with our healthcare providers and use it in a meaningful way.
Interestingly, the exhibition hall seemed to have fewer gadgets that centered on self-tracking this year and more devices that were aimed at education.
Virtual reality goggles immersed the wearer in a 3-D view of how certain functions of the body worked, from neurons firing in the brain to blood cells moving through the body.
And the typical medical textbook was given an overhaul by utilizing holograms of the body that seemed to jump out of the page.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, several speakers presented the ways they are moving health forward in this ever-changing landscape of medical technology.
Theory into practice: Maker Health
“We don’t just want you to talk about these innovations in healthcare, we want you to make them and hold them in your hand,” said Maker Health co-founder Anna Young to the large conference crowd.
She currently leads the Little Devices Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) International Design Center.
Young and her colleagues regularly look at medical devices, take them apart, and see how they work. Speaking to the crowd, she explained that within a hospital setting, nurses have always been innovators, hacking into supply closets and creating solutions more appropriate for the patients in front of them.
This is where the term “maker nurses” comes from. Young explained that these nurses’ solutions are often cheaper than the usual developments, and they are essentially inventing new ways of delivering care.
Termed “just in time” manufacturing and design, the solutions the nurses create are typically assembled on the patient’s bedside, as each patient is unique.
This type of on-the-fly innovation is particularly apt when, for example, a hospital is in the middle of a hurricane and frontline staff need to solve problems as they come up, with whatever materials they have to hand.
Inspired by this way of working, Young and colleagues have been setting up official spaces in some hospitals, where doctors and nurses are encouraged to “go tinker.” Stocked with everything, from bandages to 3-D printers, these spaces allow them to customize medical equipment and create new devices.
But of course, there are challenges in empowering people on the front line to take the initiative to create new solutions.
“It’s important to make a culture around allowing this to happen. It’s not just about a space, it’s about a culture.”
Anna Young, Maker Health
The interesting thing about this innovation is that the concept itself has been around for more than 100 years; nurses have been customizing medical equipment as they go, but often their ideas have not spread beyond their own unit.
By creating an official space within a unit for doctors and nurses to create, Young hopes the innovations will be allowed to proliferate.
Practice into theory: Lucy McRae
The fusion of art and medicine is not one that we see on a regular basis. But Lucy McRae, sci-fi artist and self-proclaimed body architect, constantly seeks to merge the two in novel ways.
A former ballerina and runner, she explained to the audience that she has been exploring the limitations of her body for years.
“As an artist,” she said, “my agenda is to provide unconventional ways of asking what are the conditions of possibility.”
Her so-called disruptive exploration of technology has yielded some unexpected projects. In one, she developed wearable costumes that project animations based on what is going on in the wearer’s body, be it increased heart rate or perspiration.
Another project, termed the “Future Day Spa,” has clients lying down under vacuum-sealed pressurized sheets, where they close their eyes and relax. Meanwhile, their basic biodata are measured.
But it was her “Swallowable Parfum” that had the pharmaceutical industry calling. In 2011, she created a cosmetic pill that uses the body’s own processes to break down fats. It is then excreted through glands when the user perspires.