How Can Open Source Hardware Revolutionise Healthcare

Nowadays, technological advancement in most sectors can be attributed to open source hardware and software platforms. Through these platforms, programmers and engineers have been able to learn and improve on already existing technology, drastically reducing the time it takes to develop new devices with advanced capabilities. For some time, open source hardware (OSHW) was somewhat restricted to a few industries, such as home automation, agriculture and manufacturing.

However, due to its success and positive influence in those industries, it is now being adopted into more sensitive and demanding sectors, like healthcare. So, that brings us to the question, how can open source hardware revolutionise healthcare? Here is some information that will help shed some light on that.

Open Source Hardware

Open source hardware can be defined as hardware whose design is available to the public domain so that other people can study it, modify it and in turn make and sell a design or hardware based on it. To aid in this, open source hardware uses readily available materials, open infrastructure, standard processes, unrestricted content and open source design tools. The designs are made in a format that can be opened and edited using open source software. This makes it easy for other people to integrate the hardware into their own products.

Licensing open source hardware is not mandatory, but wise. Some hardware uses already existing open-source software licenses. However, this is not advisable, since it is not acceptable in patent law. There are several new licenses that have been proposed for open source hardware. These licenses are similar to open-source software licenses, but have additional parts that address issues specific to hardware designs. Some of these licenses include LGPL, Modified BSD License, GPL and MIT License.

Application of Open source Hardware in Healthcare

The medicine and healthcare industry is based on three main pillars. They include diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Of late, open source hardware has been greatly applied in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. This has led to the availability of cheap and portable devices that do not require medical training to use. People are now able to monitor their health condition from anywhere and know when to take their medicine or apply preventive measures as advised by the doctor.

Open source hardware is widely applied in diagnosis of patients. This involves detecting an ailment from symptoms projected by a patient. These symptoms are normally identified by measuring the different characteristics of the human body using sensors. These measurements are known as biometrics.

Apart from diagnosis, OSHW is also applied in some treatment procedures. A good example is in prosthetics. The hardware is used to automate artificial limbs, which allow amputees to regain some degree of movement. The prosthetics industry was greatly dominated by closed-source hardware. However, due to the need for affordable artificial limbs for everyone, some companies have started using OSHW to make automated artificial limbs.

Sensors

Nowadays, thanks to open source hardware platforms, such as Bitalino and E-health, people are able to obtain measurements of different characteristics of the body. Such characteristics include temperature, blood pressure, heart beat rate, skin’s electrical activity and brain wave activity among several others. Through specialized sensors, like EDA, EMG, EEG, Pulse sensor, temperature sensor and pressure sensor, these open source platforms are able to take measurements of those body characteristics and process them into meaningful data.

There are several healthcare devices that have been designed to make use of these open-source hardware platforms. These devices provide real time biometric data of a person without the use of expensive machines that are found in hospitals. Some of the devices are open source, while others are not. A good example an open-source device is Angel.

Angel is an open-source sensor for healthcare and fitness that was successfully funded on Indiegogo. It is a wrist band that measures your temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen level and motion and sends this information to a smartphone application via Bluetooth 4.0. It also alerts you when some of the biometrics deviate from the norm, such as when you have a fever, when your heart beat is abnormal or when you are about to suffer from a heat stroke.

The good thing with Angel is that it can work with different apps. So, you can customize an app to provide the information you need without having to design your own hardware. This makes Angel more versatile and market friendly.

Prosthetics

Prosthetic limbs are expensive. This limits the number of people who can access them. However, scientists and engineers are looking for ways to make them affordable through the use of open-source hardware. A good example of such professionals is Jonathan Kuniholm who is trying to make advanced, inexpensive artificial limbs for amputees around the globe, through the Open Prosthetics Project.

Apart from making the prosthetic limbs cheaper, open source hardware will enable more companies to develop their own artificial limbs based on the open source designs. This will increase the availability of prosthetic limbs to amputees. Moreover, it will spur the development of more advanced prosthetic limbs due to high competition.

Currently the open source community has embarked on several projects that are aimed at spurring the development of open source prosthetics. These projects concentrate on the different aspects of prosthetics, such as myoelectric control, RFID object identification for control information, the split hook and vector prehensor among many others. With the continuous contribution and improvement of such designs, prosthetic companies are able to cut down the cost of research and development. This in turn reduces the cost of prosthetics and makes them more available to people.

Healthcare Product Design and Development

The regulatory compliance of medical technology is becoming harder with every passing day. This is because of the rapid changes that are taking place in medical technology. Sometimes regulatory compliance can be a barrier to innovation. However, one cannot ignore the importance of ensuring quality medical care.

When designing a new medical product, it is always advisable to follow the FDA-recommended process. The input requirements must be written down at the beginning of the designing process.  After the prototype has been developed, it must go through a validation and verification process, which ensures the device satisfies the design inputs. Once this is verified, the device is then documented in the device master record (DMR). Every other device that is made is checked against the DMR and documented in the in the device history record (DHR). All this process is aimed at ensuring that all the developed healthcare devices function as they are meant to and meet the set healthcare standards.

Healthcare devices based on open source hardware are not exempt from this rigorous design and manufacturing process. Therefore, they do not compromise on quality and standards that are expected of all medical equipment. That is why they are used in conjunction with medical prescription and lifestyle advice.

A lot has already been achieved through open source healthcare devices. However, we should expect much more, since open source hardware is improving every day. Soon, some of the most cutting edge technology will be made available to the public through it. Maybe one day we won’t even have to go to hospital anymore, since medicine will be synthesised and administered directly from our devices. Wouldn’t you love that? In what other ways do you think open source hardware can revolutionise healthcare?

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