Hugs. Remember hugs?! I miss hugs. I even miss the awkward “do I hug you or shake your hand at a meeting or some weird shoulder touching while holding hands combo” thing.
The miserable coronavirus has taken away that most basic of human experiences – hugging.
What if there could be a tool that both helped with testing and handling of coronavirus patients AND facilitated safe hugging? Well there is. It’s called the Hexapod and it is my favorite COVID-19 related innovation so far, introduced to me by my friend Susan Edgman-Levitan, PA-C
Inspired by a Korean device and developed at Mass General Hospital, the Hexapod is the brain-child of physicians Kristian Olson and Paul Currier who responded to a challenge from the CEO of the health system that could speed up testing throughput and reduce or eliminate the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which has been in short supply. And in awesome innovation form, the Hexapod was built in 9 days – only two more than it took for creation of the Earth, but considering that medicine is a regulated industry, that’s understandable.
But seriously, that’s damn fast for serious problem solving and it’s a good solution. Not only does it allow patients to be tested every 55 seconds, but it can line up 3 people at a time to speed up the process (1 each on 3 sides of the 4 sided gizmo that looks like something Superman would change in), it allows for hugs. And I’ll tell you what – antibodies are great but hugs are necessary to helping people get through this freaking nightmare.
Check it out – it even accommodates a wheelchair rolling up to one of the sides, which is more than many healthcare locales can realistically claim. Here’s how it works: a physician or nurse hangs out on the inside of the booth (which is HEPA filtered for safety when the changing of the guard comes); one person in protective gear is often on the outside helping guide patients to their spot; the doc puts her hands inside the gloves that are attached to the unit and swabs the patient with supplies on the outside and the sample is dropped into the attached tray; the physician then turns around and does the next one while the first set of glove attachments are cleaned. If the doc has a swivel chair, it’s even faster and they get to say “wheeee!” between patients. They can even pipe music into the spinny chamber – I can imagine a playlist starting with “You Spin Me Right Round, Baby…”.
Here’s the thing, this replaced a model which took 10 minutes per patient for testing, so a literal 10x improvement (really a 5x improvement if we are being honest about how the world ACTUALLY works, but still pretty damn good). It also has resulted in ZERO cases of coronavirus among the medical teams staffing the unit. It reduces PPE use by 98% and has a 2-week financial ROI pay back period (units sell for $16,500 and a day to construct, more or less. And if you are inside, you can hug the patient on the outside when they are scared or just need a damn hug.
The physicians who figured this thing out are not novices at this design thing – they are active leaders in Springboard Studio, a Mass-General human-centered design studio focused on solutions for front-line providers (design studio Eleven also played a role). This team is basically spinning out smart (by which I mean intelligent, not just wired) products and companies left and right and are thinking about how to do this in resource-constrained ways, like they would if they weren’t in the U.S. where raising buckets of money has become sport, at least for now. They have also formed Healthcare Innovation Partners, LLC to commercialize some of the best stuff, including multiple stationary and mobile models of the Hexapod. Sam Foster is a key partner in this endeavor, and others are involved as well. As Sam puts it, “ I fell into it, but it’s great to get in the fight!”
MGH has had tens of thousands of people tested on the Hexapod, which is primarily in use for pre-procedure testing at 3 sites (might be more now). The team has sold another bunch of them to other hospitals, so hugging isn’t limited to the Boston area. When I spoke to them in October they were in process of building an outdoor air condition version that could be used in retail pharmacy parking lots.
Naturally, as with all things medical, the biggest challenge they have faced is selling the product – distribution is always the last mile challenge that people don’t think about until it’s way too late. They have gotten stuck in the capex cycle, been subject to the craziness of short-term crisis thinking during the pandemic and told it can’t be funded without a grant. But they are getting there, and even if all they do is serve the biggest health system in Massachusetts, it’s really worth the effort. And there are potentially other uses for the Hexapod post-pandemic. It could be used to engage with immune compromised patients, for instance, or perhaps they can be repurposed for online dating site first live meet ups And there’s always hugging booths at county fairs.
It’s great to see real innovation done just in time and in a practical way – Dr. Olson joked about he was literally engaged in carpentry to build the first unit, prompting someone to ask him, “are you in maintenance or an attending?” Fast, good and cheap don’t usually find themselves in the same sentence, but this is one case where the exception proves the rule. Kudos to the people involved in this cool endeavor.
Hopefully we will soon be able to actually hug each other without hazmat suits, but in the meantime, I’ll take it.
Which reminds me, this video about Free Hugs went around several years back. It always makes me smile. And we could all use a smile, right? So, you’re welcome.