Five Improvised Medical Gadgets That Save Money and Lives

Following the lead of Wilt Chamberlain, Adam vacated his native Philadelphia for Los Angeles following decades of acclaim and short shorts. He firmly believes that, when it comes to the opportunity for change, we’re on the goal line with bases loaded and no fouls to give. He also finds inspiration in mixed sports metaphors.

In laboratories, workshops, garages and basements, mad and perfectly sane scientists alike are coming up with ways to change the world.

But can they make change for the better and do it on the cheap?

TakePart knows a few who can. Scientists or not, the following innovators went shoestring and fixed a few of the planet’s peskiest medical problems, proving that if necessity is the mother of invention, ingenuity is its baby daddy.

Need an incubator that costs $25 instead of 20 grand? Done.

How about a $30 medical centrifuge that runs without electricity? Check.

Fancy a 3-cent biodegradable toilet for the 2.6 million people without basic sanitation? Got that, too.

While mad scientists struggle with the overwhelming R&D costs of death rays, take it from these perfectly sane folks: it doesn't always take budget-busting thingamabobs to save the world.

The Sally Spinner

Take a salad spinner, a couple of plastic lids, a few combs, some yogurt containers, a hot glue gun, toss ‘em together, and what do you get?

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It started as a salad spinner and turned into a blood separator. (Photo:Jeff Fitlow)

If you said a $30 bill at Wal-Mart, good call. But add some inspired Rice University students to the mix, and you may come away with a hand-operated centrifuge for resource-poor doctors in the developing world.

Centrifuges spin dense red blood cells from lighter plasma, separating blood for transfusions, tests, and super-concentrated vampire juice. But standard centrifuges require electricity and cash, both of which are hard to come by in many parts of the world.

Enter Rice University students with a simple assignment: design a cheap, portable tool that can diagnose blood, and do it without electric power.

Their answer: the Sally Spinner, a hand-pumped centrifuge that can spin 30 capillary tubes-worth of blood in 20 minutes. Lightweight and durable, the Sally Spinner can make the trip to the world’s most rugged enclaves and come back in one piece, saving lives along the way.

Doctors and patients in Ecuador, Swaziland, and Malawi saw Sally in action this year, when the Rice team took the portable centrifuge into the field to diagnose malnutrition, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria.

To keep tabs on Rice's amazing efforts, check out the university's global health initiatives page, Beyond Traditional Borders.

The Embrace Incubator

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A baby should be able to stay alive even if it can't afford an incubator. (Photo: Charles Bush, 3Strand)

Every year across the planet, but mostly in the developing world, 20 million babies are born underweight and premature.

Basic incubators would put a dent in the number of babies facing these challenges, but at an average cost of $20,000 each, most mom-and-pop med clinics are priced out of the technology. What’s a baby to do?

Hit up the Embrace Incubator project. Launched by a group of Stanford graduate students, Embrace makes an incubator that runs on hot water, without electricity, for a scant $25.

The design, which looks like the love child of a sleeping bag and a set of swimmies, contains a pouch made of phase-changing material that keeps little ones warm until they’re ready to regulate their own internal temperatures.

If baby gets too warm inside the Embrace Incubator, the phase-change material absorbs the extra heat; if the tyke gets too cold, the pouch releases heat, maintaining a constant temperature. When the apparatus needs reheating, just add hot water. The pouch is ready to go in 10 minutes and can be reused hundreds of times.

The Embrace team has taken its incubator on the road to India, where it’ll find a home among private clinics and NGOs on the ground. To support team members' efforts from the comfort of your own laptop, check out their action page, or follow the blog about their fight to reduce infant mortality around the globe. 

The $3 Negative Pressure Pump

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For a bottle of two-buck Chuck, and a buck, open wounds are sucked back to health. (Photo: Melanie Gonick)

Negative pressure’s a dandy. For some miracle reason, applying suction to an open wound helps the bugger heal faster. Negative pressure pumps, however, cost about $100 a day just to rent—an amount entire outposts in the developing world don’t see in a month.

So good thing the world’s got Danielle Zurovcik. A doctoral student at MIT’s Mechanical Engineering school, Zurovcik has a take on negative pressure that’s so simple, it’s positively brilliant.

Ms. Zurovcik found that with a little plastic tubing and some airtight bandage, a bellows pump could do the job of a fancy negative pressure rig for just $3 American. 

Negative pressure pumps not only heal wounds three to five times faster than standard wet-to-dry dressings, they also reduce the need to redress bandages. The suction takes the re-bandaging process from a one-to-three-times-daily ordeal to a once-every-five-days sorta gig, saving patients a lot of pain, and doctors a ton of time.

Haiti was among the first places to see the Zurovcik pump in action. In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, Zurovcik arrived with a handful of bellows pumps and put them to work in Haiti’s swollen ERs.

The Peepoo Disposable Toilet

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Ease of use is an important consideration in field toilets. (Photo: Niklas Palmklint)

More than 2.6 billion people, 40 percent of the world, have no access to basic sanitation—that means no toilets, no urinals, and no fuzzy bath mats. Waste is mostly buried in latrine-less locales, creating a situation that can contaminate water supplies and stick good folk with deadly bacteria.

There’s no price on good health—but there is a price on good plumbing, and it ain’t cheap. Until every corner of the world can get fit with some proper copper pipes, Anders Wilhelmson’s got something to show us.

Introducing the Peepoo bag, Wilhelmson’s biodegradable, single-use, self-sanitizing WC that takes the whomp out of waste and renders it safe enough to bury.

Peepoo bags are lined with urea, the most common, non-hazardous fertilizer in the world. When urea comes into contact with human waste, it kicks off a chemical reaction that breaks down the business, kills off bacteria, and fertilizes the immediate area.

Wilhelmson got the Peepoo in mind after seeing people in Kenyan slums tossing away waste in plastic bags. Open, unused land around the slums looked like a good enough place to bury waste and grow crops, so Wilhelmson got cracking.

The Peepoo bag costs between 2 and 3 cents, or about the price of plastic bag—which the Peepoo essentially is, just one with a priceless solution.

For more on how Peepoo's taking care of business, check out the org's homepage.

The Cell Phone Microscope

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Please hold for an important image that may save your life. (Photo: Ozcan Research Group/UCLA)

For all the bad they do—drunk dialing, dropping calls, ringing nonstop—the cell phone’s finally grown up and done some good.

Using a standard cell phone camera, a little bit of software, and about $10 in spare parts, UCLA’s Aydogan Ozcan has turned the scourge of the information age into a digital microscope, giving doctors out and about in far-flung fields the lab resources they need.

Mounted to a cell phone, Ozcan’s device will scan biological samples and send what it sees to hospitals, clinics, and lab technicians where the images can be diagnosed.

“This is an inexpensive way to eliminate a microscope and sample biological images with a basic cellphone camera instead,” says Berkley’s Ahmet Yildiz. “If you are in a place where getting to a microscope or medical facility is not straightforward, this is a really smart solution.”

Unlike typical microscopes, Ozcan’s gadget doesn’t need bulky lenses to do its magnifying thing. Instead, the camera phone uses inexpensive light-emitting diodes to create holographic images of its subject, which are then mathematically reconstructed in labs to look like microscopic images.

Besides finding a good use for cell phones, Ozcan’s been hard at work inventing the world’s smallest telemedicine microscope, which puts the science behind his camera gadget in a much smaller box.

For more on Ozcan’s newest-latest, game-changing, global-health-boosting gadgets, check out the research group's site.

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