Invent Health: A jolt of inspiration for health care

Susannah Fox
3 min readSep 16, 2016
Design Axioms, by Juhan Sonin and Involution Studios

The Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is, in a lot of ways, the chief innovation officer. My team brings a can-do, creative spirit to HHS that a lot of people associate with startup companies.

What I can tell you now that I’ve been in the job for over a year is this: the passion, tenacity, and creativity that we associate with entrepreneurs can be found in government agencies. It can also be found in communities of people living with rare, life-changing, or chronic health conditions. The fire in the belly burns just as strongly among patients and caregivers as it does among startup founders.

When I arrived at HHS last year, I brought with me the spirit of the empowered patient movement.

I had spent 15 years doing fieldwork in online patient and caregiver communities, tracking a pattern of people who used the internet to network, to join together and demand access to their own data. They showed all of us the point of technology in health care.

In working with communities of people living with rare and life-changing diagnoses, like Moebius syndrome, I began to see a new pattern: people sharing their designs and modifications of physical objects. Ways to feed a baby born with full facial paralysis, for example, or modifications for people with low dexterity.

So, as the Chief Technology Officer, I decided to expand my office’s definition of technology to include medical and assistive device innovation. I’ve spent the last year exploring the intersection between the Maker movement and health care.

Here are the forces I see at work in the landscape:

1) Industrial-strength manufacturing tools are becoming cheaper, easier to use, and more widely available.

2) Access to new manufacturing capabilities, such as rapid prototyping using 3D printers, creates new opportunities for individuals and small businesses.

3) New funding mechanisms and opportunities, such as crowdfunding, incubators, and accelerators, enable new entrants.

4) Social media enables inventors to share their ideas with potential users for design feedback, funding, and distribution.

5) A return to craft and “making” as a mainstream activity gives people the skills and creative confidence to demystify devices and solve their own problems.

What could happen to boost — or mute — the impact of each of those forces?

What might we learn if we push open design principles and tools out to the edges of the network, where humanity lives, where unexpected discoveries happen, where engineers meet artists?

What will happen when everyone has access to the tools and information they need to solve their own problems — and share their ideas with others?

We must walk together toward solutions, toward the possibility of sustaining health, toward new or improved medical and assistive devices.

We must keep trying — and talking with each other — making things with our hands and solving problems, sharing ideas and data.

This is the alchemy of technology.

Tune in at 4:25pm Pacific on Friday, September 16, to watch me share these ideas and more at Stanford Medicine X: