Globally, people are trying to help fill the medical supply gap caused by the COVID-19 pandemic through open-source medical hardware. It’s a heartwarming display of global ingenuity, innovation, and collaboration. In this post, we answer your questions about open-source medical hardware and provide some insight into what you can do to help.
Open-source hardware: the designs of physical objects that are openly licensed so they can be modified, created, and distributed without restrictions.
Why is open-source medical hardware important?
It’s easy to forget, with such a flurry of increased activity, that open-source medical hardware is not new. In fact, it has been instrumental in providing medical devices and equipment to under-resourced healthcare workers and facilities for years—a need that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, following the H1N1 pandemic, medical professors at Swansea University published open-source instructions for a low-cost emergency ventilator.
In a 2010 report titled, “Managing the Mismatch,” the World Health Organization (WHO) stated, “Research is making rapid progress within the development of sophisticated medical technologies…Yet despite this progress, the majority of the world’s population has little or no access to many of these innovations.” In particular, the WHO detailed a significant “mismatch” in the availability of relevant, effective medical devices for localized public health needs, highlighting that “70–90% of all medical devices donated to the developing world never function as intended.” Four important components of correcting this “mismatch” are availability, accessibility, appropriate(ness), and affordability—this is where open-source medical hardware comes in, as Dr. Gerrit Niezen et. al. explained in a 2016 research article:
A 3D printer builds a stethoscope using The Glia Project’s open-source design. Source: The Glia Project (CC BY-SA)
“Making the hardware design available under an open source license allows anyone to improve and contribute to the device design, leading to very rapid innovation compared to traditional methods. It also enables the design to be modified for very specific uses, and makes the devices easy to repair…This has great potential for making medical devices more accessible in the developing world, where devices can also be designed as open-source and built for specific use cases, instead of having to depend on donated equipment.”
A clear example of a medical device “mismatch” is the cost of a stethoscope compared to its necessity. Although stethoscopes are one of the most important tools for healthcare workers, on the market, a reliable stethoscope costs between $90.00 – $200.00 USD and is almost impossible to come by in low-resource settings. After noticing this issue while working in Gaza, Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room physician in Canada and recipient of the 2020 Bassel Khartabil Fellowship, created an open-source design for stethoscopes in 2018 that can be 3D printed for around $3.00 USD. Through his charity, The Glia Project, Dr. Loubani now creates and releases open-source designs for stethoscopes, tourniquets, and otoscopes so that they can be produced cheaply by anyone with a 3D printer. The charity not only creates these designs, they also train people in under-resourced and conflict-ridden areas to use 3D printers and deploy these medical devices in the field. “The Glia Project is first and foremost a project about independence,” explained Dr. Loubani in a 2019 interview.
Just recently, in response to the pandemic, the organization turned to creating face masks for Canadian health workers. “That’s been my promise to my colleagues,” Dr. Loubani recently told the CBC, “And soon that will be my promise to all health-care workers in Canada.”
Creating open-source medical hardware during the COVID-19 pandemic
Dr. Loubani is not alone in using open-source hardware to mitigate the medical supply and equipment shortage due to COVID-19. The Helpful Engineering Group on Slack is filled with thousands of engineers crowdsourcing ideas for medical devices and tools, and the Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies (OSCMS) group on Facebook has over 50,000 members doing the same. Alongside these somewhat ad hoc and loosely organized efforts are initiatives by research institutions and labs, such as the MIT Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent) project and the Just One Giant Lab OpenCovid19 Initiative.