Open-source medical design: can it improve patient safety?

Medical devices are heavily regulated and patented for obvious reasons. But some researchers believe opening up the code and hardware for healthcare equipment is a compelling alternative.

Medical device design is heavily regulated for obvious safety reasons. But a number of researchers--including those with support from the Food and Drug Administration--are developing "open-source" healthcare equipment. The idea is to offer completely transparent, shared software code and mix-and-match interface and hardware designs. While this might seem risky, the goal is to spark faster and more effective innovation in the medical device field, while making it easier to spot potential programming bugs and other device failures.

As The Economist points out in an insightful overview of this burgeoning field ("When code can kill or cure," in the June 2 issue), software-reliant devices have also brought on new types of potential risks for patients. A study from the University of Patras in Greece found that one in three such devices sold in the U.S. were recalled between 1999-2005. The FDA found that drug-infusion pumps were linked to 20,000 serious injuries and more than 700 fatalities between 2005-2009. It can be hard to expose specific problems with these products, given that medical software (and hardware) is proprietary and patent-protected, thus veiled in secrecy. The open-source approach could, in theory, make it easier to fix, or even avoid, dangerous flaws before they hurt or kill hundreds or thousands of patients.

Some of the open-source devices currently being designed are so far intended only for use in medical research. They are usually sized for animals or specified for use on cadavers. In other words, the doctors, engineers, and designers working on such equipment aren't yet addressing U.S. regulation in the medical device arena, but their research could lead to more effective products down the line.

Below is a summary of the projects in The Economist's report worth noting. The overview offers a helpful round-up that clearly illustrates a trend--and a thought-provoking one at that.

  • The Generic Infusion Pump project, which is a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and the FDA, is designing a drug-delivery system backwards: researchers started by figuring out potential failures, then will work to avoid or mitigate them in the design.
Equipment from the Medical Device Plug-and-Play Interoperability Program
  • The Open Source Medical Device initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is working toward a high-resolution medical body scanner combined with radiotherapy machine. The initiative will offer all of the instructions and source code for building one, for free--along with recommendations on how much parts should cost. Researchers say the device should be one-fourth the cost of a commercial body scanner, and might be a good option for resource-constrained communities that otherwise may not be able to have access to such equipment.
  • The Medical Device Coordination Framework that's being developed at Kansas State University aims to create an open-source hardware platform that would include interchangeable buttons, displays, as well as software that would connect them with sensors and other devices. Inventors could design health equipment from these mix-and-match items.

Images: University of Washington; connectologist/Flickr

This post was originally published on

Show Comments