After working for years in different healthcare settings, I learned to appreciate simple, good design of medical products, and have experienced the frustration of poor design. Most of the time we use a medical product is for an important reason, and so the functional standard for these products is very high. However, often in carrying out the function, design of a medical product is forgotten, leading to unforeseen problems.

One of the most important factors for whether a product will be adopted is whether the intended user can actually use the product, and how easily. Even if something is a major engineering accomplishment, if it is difficult for a patient or provider to use it will either be misused or not used at all. Misuse due to confusion and poor design lead to poor adoption.

Below are some frequently used medical products, categorized by quality of design.

Good Design: Pulse Oximeters

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A pulse oximeter is a small medical device to measure the oxygen saturation in a person’s bloodstream. Typically in a hospital setting, you want oxygen saturation to be above 92%. Lower values mean a person is not getting enough oxygen, and this can result in fainting, falling, and other risks.

The reason that pulse oximeters have a good design is the ease of use. One simple inserts their finger into the device, which then reads the oxygen saturation using infrared light through the capillaries in the hand, and displays the reading on an easy to read screen.

There is little confusion about how to use this device, and little confusion about how to read the result.

Poor design: Most Wheelchairs

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Having worked extensively with individuals using wheelchairs, there are very few which have been properly adjusted or fitted for people. Manual wheelchairs by design are difficult to adjust, both for patients and healthcare professionals, leading to frustration and improper fitting and use. In the rush of an injury such as sudden paralysis,  people are often improperly fitted and rushed into buying a wheelchair which does not suit them.

Manual wheelchairs have multiple parts, which can be difficult to adjust and store. Additionally, the weight of the product creates a burden on users, especially with repetitive use. Lightweight models made of carbon fiber have begun to address these issues, but the price remains high for many people to afford.

For the amount of years wheelchairs have existed in healthcare and been an option for those with limited mobility, there is still a long way to go before wheelchairs become an easily used product for short or long term use.  

Improving Design: Prosthetics

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Prosthetics, particularly for below knee amputees, is one area of healthcare which has significantly improved in the last couple of decades. Companies have adopted modular designs for fit, comfort, design, and safety. Compared to the wooden, heavy prosthetics of 20 years ago, new prosthesis allow individuals to walk and run. 

The true beauty of improvement in prosthetics is being brought to surface by research labs such as Hugh Herr’s lab at MIT, where projects are breathing new life into  prosthetics with added function, mobility, and proprioception.