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Why medical devices should be more like bicycles

From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector. Read all of our WIRED Health coverage here.

When you look at a bicycle, says MIT's José Gómez-Márquez, you immediately understand how it works. Whether it costs £10 or £10,000, the underlying mechanisms are easily understood, and such a design allows it to be modified for individual use.

This isn't a quality that medical devices possess, however. From smaller medical devices like pregnancy tests to the largely mysterious 'black boxes' that populate hospitals and GP surgeries, most people have no idea how medical equipment works. 

"These devices were not designed to be understood by the people who use them," Gómez-Márquez, told the audience at WIRED Health. 

"Your doctor's office is filled with these boxes - but when do you ever have a fruitful conversation with your doctor about their equipment?"

It hasn't always been this way, however – medical technology has a rich history of people who "defied the black box", said Gómez-Márquez. In the 1920s, items purchased in hardware stores were used to make rudimentary heart catheters; the first balloon angioplasty was performed in a kitchen. 

Gómez-Márquez's lab looks at these innovations and tries to bridge the gap between makers and DIYers and healthcare. "We need more people participating in the design process of medical devices," he said – something he refers to as "making health".

Making in health occurs when individuals shape, form, assemble and transform objects with their own hands-on skills and nearby resources, Gómez-Márquez said. This is part of a larger maker movement across the world, using prototyping tools, 3D printers, microcontrollers, sensors and laser cutters to close the growing divide in digital healthcare. 

When we don't understand technologies, it has a real world impact. Gómez-Márquez points to the millions of dollars of aid spent in countries affected by Ebola. "Our hope is that the next generation knows that great medicine comes from great tinkering," he says.

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