A Million Patients Have Innovated Their Own Medical Solutions, And Doctors Are Terrified

Diabetes patient advocate Renza Scibilia with her continuous glucose monitor, used in innovative DIY health technology.

(Courtesy of Scibilia)

In the fall of 2017, patient advocate Renza Scibilia told a conference of endocrinologists in Australia about new, patient-developed artificial pancreas technology that helped her manage her Type 1 diabetes.

"Because it's not a regulated product, some [doctors] were worried and said 'What if it goes wrong?'"

"They were in equal measure really interested and really scared," recalled Scibilia. "Because it's not a regulated product, some were worried and said 'What if it goes wrong? What is my liability going to be?'"

That was two years ago. Asked if physicians have been more receptive to the same "looping" technology now that its benefits have been supported by considerable data (as Leapsmag pointed out in May), Scibilia said, "No. Clinicians are still really insecure. They're always going to be reluctant to accept consumer-driven technology."

This exemplifies a major challenge to the growing Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biohealth movement: physicians are unnerved and worried about innovations developed by patients and other consumers that haven't been tested in elaborate clinical trials or sanctioned by regulatory authorities.

"It's difficult for patients who develop new health technology to demonstrate the advantage in a way that physicians would accept." said Howard DeMonaco, visiting scientist at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "New approaches to the treatment of diseases are by definition suspect to clinicians. Most are risk averse unless there is a substantial advantage to the new approach and the risks in doing so appear to be minimized."

Nevertheless, the DIY biohealth movement is booming. About a million people reported that they created medical innovations to address their own medical needs in surveys conducted from 2010-2015 in the U.S., U.K., Finland, Canada and South Korea.

Add in other DIY health innovations created in homes, community biolabs and "Maker" health fairs, and it's clear that health care providers are increasingly confronted with medical devices, information technology, and even medications that were developed in unconventional settings and lack the blessing of regulatory authorities.

Researchers in Portugal have tried to spread the word about many of these solutions on the Patent Innovations website, which has more than 500 examples, ranging from a 3-D printed arm and hand to a sensor device that warns someone when an osteomy bag is full.

When Reddit asked medical professionals, "What is the craziest DIY health treatment you've seen a patient attempt?" thousands shared horror stories.

But even in this era of patient empowerment, more widespread use of DIY health solutions still depends upon the approval and cooperation of physicians, nurses and other caregivers. And health care providers still lack awareness of promising patient-developed innovations, according to Dr. Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan who advocates involving patients in the design of healthcare technology. "Most physicians are scared of what they don't know," she said.

They're also understandably worried about patients who don't know what they're doing and make irresponsible decisions. When Reddit asked medical professionals, "What is the craziest DIY health treatment you've seen a patient attempt?" thousands shared horror stories, including a man who poked a hole in his belly button with a knitting needle to relieve gas.

Yet DeMonaco and Lee think it's possible to start bridging the gaps between responsible patient innovators and skeptical doctors as well as unprepared regulatory systems.

One obstacle to consumer-driven health innovations is that clinical trials to prove their safety and effectiveness are expensive and time-consuming, as De Monaco points out in a recent article. He and his colleagues suggested that low-cost clinical trials by and for patients could help address this challenge. They urged patients to publish their own research and detail the impact of innovations on their own health, and create databases that incorporate the findings of other patients.

For example, Adam Brown, who has Type 1 diabetes, compared the effects of low and high carbohydrate diets on his blood sugar management, and conveyed the results in an online journal. "Sharing the information allowed others to copy the experiment," the article noted, suggesting that this could be a model to create multi-patient trials that could be "analyzed by expert patients and/or by professionals."

Asked how to convince health care providers to consider such research, DeMonaco cited the example of doctors prescribing "off label" drugs for purposes that aren't approved by the FDA. "The secret to off label use, like any other user innovation, is dissemination," he said. Sharing case reports and other low-cost research serves to disseminate the information "in a way that is comfortable for physicians," he said, and urged patient innovators to take the same approach.

The FDA regulates commercial products and has no authority if consumers want to use medical devices, medications, or information systems that they find on their own.

Physicians should also be encouraged to engage in patient-driven research, said Dr. Lee. She suggests forming "maker spaces in which patients and physicians are involved in designing personalized technology for chronic diseases. In my vision, patient peers would build, iterate, and learn from each other and the doctor would be part of the team, constantly assessing and evaluating the technology and facilitating the process."

Some kind of regulatory oversight of DIY health technology is also necessary, said Todd Kuiken, senior research scholar at NC State and former principal investigator at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project.

The FDA regulates commercial products and has no authority if consumers want to use medical devices, medications, or information systems that they find on their own. But that doesn't stop regulators from worrying about patients who use them. For example, the FDA issued a warning about diabetes looping technology earlier this year after one diabetic was hospitalized with hypoglycemia.

Kuiken, for one, believes that citizen-driven innovation requires oversight "to move forward." He suggested that Internal Review Boards, with experts on medical technology, safety and ethics, could play a helpful role in validating the work of patient innovators and others engaged in DIY health research. "As people are developing health products, there would be experts available to take a look and check in," he said.

Kuiken pointed out that in native American territories, tribally based IRBs working with the national Indian Health Services help to oversee new health science research. The model could be applied more broadly.

He also offered hope to those who want to integrate the current health regulatory structure into the ecosystem of DIY health innovations. "I didn't expect people from the FDA or NIH to show up" he said about a workshop on citizen-driven biomedical research that he helped organize at the Wilson Center last year. But senior officials from both agencies attended.

He indicated they "were open to new ideas." While he wouldn't disclose contributions made by individual participants in the workshop, he said the government staffers were "very interested in figuring out how to engage with citizen health innovators, to build bridges with the DIY community."

"Why should we wait for regulatory bodies? Why wait for trials that take too long?"

Time will tell whether those bridges will be built quickly enough to increase the comfort of physicians with health innovations developed by patients and other consumers. In the meantime, DIY health innovators like patient advocate Scibilia are undeterred.

"Why should we wait for regulatory bodies?" she asked. "Why wait for trials that take too long? There are plenty of data out there indicating the [diabetes looping] technology works. So we're just going to do it. We're not waiting."

Dan Fleshler
Dan Fleshler is a freelance writer and communications consultant who focuses on health and health policy. His work has been published in the New York Times, Quartz, Daily Beast, Diabetes Forecast and Diabetes Mine, among other outlets.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.