Thinking Outside the (3D Printer) Box

In a 2016 Ted Talk, Bon Ku, MD, MPP, said: “The superpower of doctors of the future will be to be able to think creatively and problem solve.” Fast forward five years, and Ku’s words become all the more powerful.

Since COVID-19 has swept across the globe, one of the many challenges facing frontline healthcare workers is a lack of equipment to address the virus.

Ku, an emergency department physician, co-founder and director of the innovative Health Design Lab at Thomas Jefferson University, and the Marta and Robert Adelson Professor of Medicine and Design, is helping to create design-oriented solutions to combat the problems posed by COVID-19. One tool in his kit is the 3D printer—widely available and fairly inexpensive to use.

There is already an approved “hack” to increase the availability of ventilators—a printed piece of hardware can be used so that one ventilator can supply oxygen to two patients. Now, the printer is being used to solve another problem—a shortage of nasal swabs for testing for the virus.

Ku and Robert S. Pugliese, PharmD, BCPS, director of Innovation Design at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health and co-founder and managing director of the University’s Health Design Lab, have created thousands of 3D-printed nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 testing.

The Health Design Lab is a creative think tank led by a team of clinicians, designers, and students fueled by a desire to positively impact healthcare. It is the first design thinking program at a medical school, teaching future physicians to apply human-centered design to healthcare challenges.

Recently, the lab found a simple solution to another big problem with a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE). A small part of the battery pack on the airborne protection suits used by healthcare workers caring for COVID patients kept breaking, rendering the suits inoperable. Using 3D printing, student volunteers teamed up with the Health Design Lab to print battery case replacements.

To aid other facilities facing the same problem, the team created an open-access website that includes a link to their 3D printer code so other hospitals can print their own components.

Pugliese says this project was representative of the teamwork that exists across Jefferson.

“The Health Design Lab has been a critical asset during the COVID-19 pandemic, not so much because of the equipment inside, but for what it stands for,” he says. “This project and others are perfect examples of what is possible when you have a place like the Health Design Lab to help create an ecosystem that brings together our creative and innovative minds in a place purpose built for nurturing creative problem solving.”

In addition, when the pandemic struck, a previous project, CoLab Philadelphia—a converted Airstream trailer that brings health services into underserved communities in Philadelphia—was transformed into a mobile outdoor COVID-19 testing site. CoLab is funded by TD Charitable Foundation and the American Heart Association.