The Invent Health Initiative: Hardware Innovations for the Low-Resource Environment

A young man holds up a foldable microscope in a remote area.

The stories behind the hardware innovations of health—the bootstrapped, handmade, homemade tools that have helped patients solve challenging home health or clinical care problems—have served as a focal point for our Invent Health Initiative.

These stories extend beyond tools designed for direct use by the patient. What about the health care providers or researchers who are working in low-resource environments and need proper tools to assess the health of their community? In today’s Invent Health blog series post, we’re putting a spotlight on one such example that looked to solve the problem of getting clinicians and scientists who are working in low-resource environments access to a fundamental diagnostic health tool—the microscope.

Health workers in these types of resource constrained environments need accurate diagnostic tools, but often don’t have the means to pay for—or ship—expensive and delicate equipment. Manu Prakash, who runs a bioengineering lab at Stanford University, created a foldable paper microscope that is powerful enough to detect E.coli bacteria yet costs less than a dollar to make. It is not yet available for use, but it represents a possible future for low-cost, easily-distributed scientific tools.

When I traveled to Galveston, Texas last month for a meeting co-hosted by NASA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), a convergence of designers, clinicians, architects, engineers, scientists, and other experts, all gathered to talk about one common mission: how to sustain human life in extreme environments. It was clear from our conversations that the overlap in the problems identified—whether health-related or otherwise—in extreme environments (the harsh realities of space, a hurricane-ravaged city, a developing country), found solutions in the ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking of our fellow cross-agency, cross-government, cross-profession, cross-industry colleagues.

When have you found a collaboration between what were initially thought of as incongruous partners been incredibly, and surprisingly successful? Have you ever had to patch together a solution in a low-resource environment? Tell us your story about how you hacked the answer to a question with limited resources and materials.

If you are intrigued by the themes we are exploring, check out the calendar of events associated with the National Week of Making. On Thursday, June 23, HHS IDEA Lab is teaming up with the MedStar Institute for Innovation and the National Institutes for Health to create an interactive exhibition of how the maker movement is affecting health care. If you live in or near Washington, DC, please join us!

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Photo credit: The Next Gen Scientist on Flickr