Nearly four million infants in developing countries die each year within a month of birth due to complications of prematurity, low birth weight, and infection. Design that Matters (DtM), a nonprofit organization, is committed to helping prevent these deaths by providing the medical devices needed to give at-risk newborns a warm and clean environment to help them grow strong.

Otter is a newborn conductive warmer designed to treat premature and low birth weight newborns who are especially vulnerable to hypothermia. (Credit: Design that Matters)

Since 2010, DtM has been setting the standard for best practices in medical device design in underprivileged communities. The organization has saved thousands of newborns that were at risk of lifelong disability and death by developing a suite of medical devices. These devices allow rural hospitals with limited resources and inexperienced staff to treat common, life-threatening conditions — such as jaundice, hypothermia, and pneumonia.

Collaborating with local medical personnel during the development process who will use these devices, DtM has been able to push the limits of rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing to deliver medical solutions to communities desperate for a better quality of life.

Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping is the most crucial part of DtM's design process. With its own rapid prototyping lab, which is equipped with everything from 3D printers to laser cutters, DtM can experiment with numerous iterations of the overall medical device form factor, the user interface, and any key components. The organization also recently began using the Lenovo ThinkStation P900 series, which allows it to generate three or four renderings in the time it used to take to create just one. This drastic reduction in product development time helps DtM deliver a faster time to market.

“There's no point in making a new medical device that no one likes or can figure out how to use,” says Tim Prestero, founder of DtM. “Hardware that gives you the ability to work on the go and produce multiple prototypes quickly allows us to conduct user-testing in the field with the doctors and patients that will use our devices, and that efficiency can make the difference between a good product no one uses and a great product that saves millions of lives.”

Collaboration and development in the field is also extremely important to the DtM process. As they travel around the world, DtM volunteers rely on Lenovo ThinkPads. Because they are durable, the ThinkPads have survived everything from falling off a moving motorcycle in Africa to countless trips through rural Asia. Powerful enough for CAD, but light enough to carry anywhere, Lenovo ThinkPads allow DtM to work directly with its stakeholders in the field to ensure fast and efficient local adoption.

Life-Changing Devices

DtM's drive to save lives has resulted in the production of several life-changing medical devices, including:

  • Pelican, a portable pulse oximeter that allows low-skilled community health workers to quickly diagnose newborn pneumonia.

  • Otter, a newborn conductive warmer designed to treat premature and low birth weight newborns who are especially vulnerable to hypothermia.

  • Firefly, the world's most effective newborn phototherapy device, which is designed specifically to treat otherwise healthy newborns for jaundice.

An important insight the organization has learned over the years is that people won't use a device that doesn't fit into their daily job and environment. For instance, large pieces of medical equipment with tiny casters assumes there are smooth floors and working elevators, which are often uncommon in underprivileged countries.

Overall, in the context of a low-resource hospital, conventional medical devices can be either too expensive, too complicated, or too difficult to maintain. As a result, the World Health Organization estimates that less than a third of donated medical devices are ever turned on — wasting roughly $250 million in aid every year.

Firefly is the world’s most effective newborn phototherapy device. It is designed specifically to treat otherwise healthy newborns for jaundice. (Credit: Design that Matters)

To help avoid such issues, DtM partners with local organizations to ensure that stakeholders are involved in the process from start to finish — avoiding miscommunication and providing cost-effective equipment designed to eliminate the most common sources of product failure and user error.

DtM is also leveraging relationships to make sure that it is constantly growing and accelerating the development of its products. Most recently, DtM announced that it will partner with Medical Technology Transfer and Services (MTTS) and Day One Health to raise $3.5 million over the next three years to accomplish several goals — including Firefly phototherapy implementations around the world to treat 100,000 newborns each year. The organization expects the program's impact to extend into a partnership that can establish reference designs for newborn care in low-resource settings.

Not only is DtM expecting to see a tremendous impact through these kinds of partnerships, but the organization is also benefitting from the recruitment of more than 1,200 volunteers and students. In fact, many of DtM's former volunteers have realigned their life trajectories to continue their careers in the social sector.

Some of the more recent examples involve groups of DtM alumni forming their own organizations. One group from Stanford University recently launched Embrace Innovations, a social enterprise that developed the Embrace infant warmer, which has treated more than 200,000 newborns. Another former DtM student volunteer cofounded PayGo Energy in Kenya, a distribution service that uses pay-as-you-go-technology to bring modern fuel to hom es everywhere, and a former DtM staff member went on to create Design for America, a national network applying the design process to tackle challenges in health, economics, education, and environment.

While creating medical devices that address critical needs in communities around the world, DtM is also committed to developing the next generation of social impact designers. With the vision to create medical devices that are “easy to use right and hard to use wrong,” the organization's goal for the future is to develop products that will become the standard of care in the communities it serves — allowing it to radically change healthcare and make a lasting impact in the lives of families around the globe.

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