Maker culture is all the rage these days. So it's no surprise that do-it-yourself hackers, tinkerers and masters of 3-D printing have moved into the healthcare arena.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) is the nation's first hospital system to fully embrace the spirit of hands-on innovation by opening a makerspace for nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals. The idea is to enhance medicine by giving those on the front lines a place to dream up and develop fixes that improve patient care and boost medical efficiency. Imagine waterproof covers that let patients shower with an IV line in and an automatic hose system that flushes out chemical burn wounds for hours so nurses don't have to do it.

"There's a lot of clinical research going on here by doctors and medical faculty," says David Marshall, UTMB's chief nursing and patient care services officer. "But rank-and-file staff members haven’t been able to take ideas they have at the bedside and use equipment to hack something that makes patients more comfortable or caregivers more efficient."

DIY for RNs and MDs

UTMB's MakerHealth Space, which opened last September, boasts a 3-D printer, laser cutter, sewing machine, soldering iron, hand tools, adhesives and various "maker" materials and supplies. A maker expert is also available to offer technical assistance on building prototypes and testing concepts.

The idea comes from MakerNurse, co-founded by Jose Gomez-Marquez and Anna Young of MIT's Little Devices Lab and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In addition to launching UTMB's hackerspace, MakerNurse has also started smaller mobile makerspaces in other hospitals that are essentially carts with basic tools and materials that staff can use. Plus, these mobile spaces allows nurses to electronically submit innovative solutions to everyday problems they encounter in hospital rooms, maternity wards and ERs across the country that have mostly been patient-centered fixes to existing equipment shortcomings. Think glow-in-the-dark pill bottles to help patients grab the right ones at night and color-coded IV lines to stop hospital staff mix-ups.

"Nurses have a long history of making," Marshall says. "I think it's just the nature of their work, trying to make patients more comfortable. If you look back in the American Journal of Nursing in the 1940s, there was a regular column called 'The Trading Post' where nurses would send in their ideas, like different ways to fold sheets or make ice buckets. Necessity, I guess, is the mother of invention."

Laser cutter at UTMB's makerspaceAn MIT engineer demonstrates how the laser cutter in UTMB’s makerspace works. (Photo: UTMB)

Medicine's maker ethic spreads

Nurses aren't the only inventive health providers. UTMB decided to open up its space to everyone, including doctors, medical and nursing school faculty, students and even outside community members.

So far, mostly nurses are using it. But other tinkerer types have started venturing in as well. Marshall says that two of UTMB's physician specialists used the 3-D printer to create a prototype of a new oropharyngeal device that would keep patients' airways open so they could hold it in their hands and see how it might feel to use.

Some of UTMB's inventions, like the chemical burn flushing system, have already been approved for use within its hospital system. Efforts are also underway to patent certain technologies and make them available in other hospitals. The idea is to spread the word and inspire health providers everywhere to innovate.

"We're excited to catalog our ideas and get them out so other people can see what we're doing," says Marshall. "I think the idea is for other hospitals to open up makerspaces like ours so they can start capturing ideas and make things that will result in better, safer and more efficient patient care."