May 21, 2020

When ventilators break, iFixit can help

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Hospitals have had to rely on manufacturers for repair information. Now, there are free guides to medical technology online.

In hospitals, ventilators, dialysis machines and mechanical beds are more important than ever. Sometimes, of course, that equipment breaks down. And some manufacturers restrict access to repair information or require that their equipment be fixed by authorized technicians — meaning that biomedical technicians working in hospitals can’t just fix things themselves.

This week, the DIY and repair site iFixit published a giant database of medical equipment repair manuals. I spoke with Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, who has been leading the project. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Kyle Wiens (Photo courtesy of iFixit)

Kyle Wiens: This is part of the broader trend in products where manufacturers have been locking down repairs. Apple doesn’t want you to fix your iPhone, and Medtronic doesn’t want hospitals to fix their equipment. They would prefer them to be on service contracts and pay very expensive rates. But the hospitals have highly qualified, highly trained biomedical technicians already on site that can do the work. But you have this trend toward more locked-down systems [in which] manufacturers have been taking freedom away from hospitals.

Molly Wood: Is there any benefit to you at iFixit to do this, just out of curiosity? You’re not charging hospitals for access to this?

Wiens: We have no business model for this. This is maybe one of the stupidest business ideas I’ve ever had. We’re not running advertising, we’re paying for everything out of pocket. I took close to half of my team off of their normal work for the last couple months to do this. It’s been an absolutely huge project — larger than, I think, any one manufacturer could have done. We have information on thousands of devices from hundreds of manufacturers all in one place. The biomeds tell me that that’s what they really need. They need a central, easy-to-search repository.

Wood: Not only are you not monetizing it, is there a chance that you will get in some kind of trouble or get sued over this, considering, like you said, these expensive service contracts that manufacturers would prefer to be selling?

Wiens: There’s a tension where the manufacturers don’t want to share the service information because it will enable competition. To that extent, we are enabling that competition, but I would hope that the manufacturers see this as a service that we’re providing. We’re better at hosting and sharing collaborative service information than a medical device manufacturer is, so let us do what we do well, and then let them focus on their work.

Wood: Do the manufacturers have a point — they spend years of research and millions of dollars on these devices — do they have a right to protect that intellectual property?

Wiens: We’re not talking about just anyone fixing these devices. We’re talking about biomedical technicians that are already doing this maintenance, already doing this work. And if you talk with the hospitals and you see what’s happening day to day, it can be life or death, whether they can fix a machine fast. If you have a ventilator go down, you don’t have the option to mail it into a manufacturer for service. You have to fix that machine that day. This is really more about power dynamics and about trying to squeeze every last dime that they can out of the hospitals by pushing them into expensive service contracts, when the hospitals really are perfectly capable of doing that work themselves.

Wood: The database went up earlier this week. How is demand so far?

Wiens: We’re seeing really good reaction from biomed technicians. Not just in the U.S., [but] around the world. I got a message today from a technician in Uganda that said, “Thank you so much. This is going to be really helpful.” We’re excited that this is going to be a resource that will be used for a long time to come.

Wood: Separate from medical equipment, I wonder what sort of traffic you’ve been seeing on the site since people started quarantining.

Wiens: The traffic to self-repair guides on the internet is dramatically up during the quarantine. People are at home, they’re bored, they’re fixing things. All the things that have been around your house on the “honey do” list, they are getting done. Our fastest-growing repair right now is the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo’s repair centers are shut down. There’s a common problem with the left joystick, where it starts to drift and it’s very infuriating as you’re playing games, and there’s a really, really simple fix for it.

Wood: Any other device-repair manuals that are especially popular?

Wiens: We’re seeing laptops across the board. All of a sudden, every schoolchild needs a computer. That wasn’t the case, I don’t think, 6 months ago. You’d say, “I need to get a laptop for my kid.” Well, maybe that’s a very lucky kid back then. Now, it’s an absolute necessity. Every kid needs a laptop. Doing school from home on a phone is not fun. We’re seeing old laptops being pulled out of the drawers. People are upgrading them with [solid-state drives] and RAM to make them a little bit faster, and that’s great.

iFixit has hundreds of manuals on all sorts of medical devices. (Photo courtesy of iFixit)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The Medical Device Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents the industry, didn’t respond to our request for comment.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group delivered a letter to Congress this week signed by more than 300 hospital repair technicians, asking for all medical manufacturers to make repair manuals and specs easy to find and free. That letter, which is actually part of the organization’s larger Right to Repair push, is related to consumer electronics, tractors and combines, cars, dishwashers and lifesaving medical equipment. But there’s no doubt that hospitals, and even governments, are struggling with this issue. You may remember back in March, California had a stockpile of broken ventilators, and when it wanted to get them fixed, service providers said it would take a month or more. The state ended up turning to a clean-energy tech company that got the manuals and fixed hundreds of ventilators in a matter of days. 

Also watching

Shopify may have had to endure partnering with Facebook on Shops, a competitor to Shopify’s app, Shop, but the company is not going quietly into that dark shopping night. On Wednesday, Shopify announced a lot of new features designed to make it easier for merchants to list and get paid for items. There’s a local delivery option, installment payments for consumers and even a financing product for small businesses. You go, Shopify! Sure, you’re up against Amazon and Facebook and Shop versus Shops, but you know what? You keep on truckin’.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer