Taming the beast in a complex system

Last week I had my first medium-plus allergic reaction to Shellfish (I think). I didn’t even eat it, I just ate rice that had been cooked with it. The kicker is, I don’t even LIKE Shellfish.

Literally within an hour my face swelled up (not like Hitch style but pretty bad never the less) & my throat became ridiculously itchy & sore, and I became wheezy like when you have an asthma attack. Needless to say, i wasn’t best impressed with this new hyper-sensitive immune system of mine. I hadn’t been to see a doctor in literally months, and i was hoping to keep it that way. Damn.

I had to go to the urgent care center, where I was given steroids, more anti-histamines, and a GP appointment. My GP prescribed me my first EpiPen, and a referral to an immunologist.

Today I picked up my EpiPen. I’ve never seen one up close before.

My GP gave me strict instructions about how to use it, & that I can see the practice nurse to show me how, and that I should call an ambulance if i use it & that I’ll always have to carry it and anti-histamines with me for the rest of my life now “just incase”.

But what struck me was the design of it.

It’s really quite big! And I wonder how smaller people (kids etc) carry their EpiPens about if they don’t bring a backpack? Its design is a bit impractical. They’re reliable, sure. They’ll buy a patient who’s in the midst of a severe allergic reaction a few crucial minutes to make their way to the hospital.

But they’re also bulky. Their epinephrine solution isn’t particularly shelf-stable, and will easily degrade in temperatures that are too low or too high (too cold in a bag in the winter? too hot in a jeans pocket perhaps?) and its expiry date on mine is in about a years time. So not very long.

I had a quick google to see if there was other designs available. In America, there was 100s of news articles on the esculating price tag: apparently a pack of two EpiPens now lists for $608 in the USA. (I checked the cost for the NHS & it’s £23.99 for 1 single dose).

This revealed that there’s a design patent on it until 2025. One company owns the monopoly of the EpiPen. & because of this, the design flaws of it for the user, are the profit for company. If it’s too big to carry, you’re more likely to buy more (in the US anyways) to store in other places or for back-ups.

Accidental injections seem pretty common, and instructions are relatively simple, but, adrenaline is invariably used in highly stressful situations, in order to treat a severe allergic reaction. As the auto-injector was originally designed for use in the military, the users were well trained to manage in these circumstances and the user group generally consisted of healthy adult males. Nowadays the devices are given to people of all ages, and with children suffering more from anaphylaxis than any other age group, the device has to be appropriate for a wide range of user groups.

On the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Dr Boyle highlighted how having to respond to a stressful situation can affect the person administering the drug. In his trial, more than half of the intensively trained parents were unable to correctly operate the devices in an emergency.

He cited some of the common errors associated with auto-injectors: holding them the wrong way round, failing to remove the safety cap and not pressing hard enough. They also discussed how little research into the efficacy of the device has been done because studies can cause severe allergic reactions in test subjects, plus real life situations are likely to occur in public and not in clinical settings. All of these issues have resulted in little drive to improve the devices over the last 50 years, leaving key issues unaddressed. (1)

The very fact that the EpiPen has been dominant for so long makes it hard for challengers to come in with a radically different design.

So, what does all of this mean? Well… there’s a HUGE Challenge for someone to make a MASSIVE difference to 1,000’s & 1,000’s of people, but also challenging in being able to design everything that is needed into an EpiPen (engineering, plastics, drugs, function, deisgn, safety etc) that’s life-style-functional & more cost effective long-term (shelf-life etc).

It highlights that instead of trying to carve out a focused segment of healthcare or a specific specialty of design, we should be re-framing these conversations about healthcare improvement around a set of challenges.

No one person or one organization can take on the whole system, but collectively we can make significant, people-centered change happen. I wrote on my blog last night about ‘critical making‘ – If there is one element that is sorely lacking in healthcare, it’s the ability to prototype, to critically make.

It can seem like a beast of a system can healthcare: its big, complex, and delivering on one of the most complex industries. But I’m trying to keep practicing at staying awake and trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

 

Who knew some Shellfish and an EpiPen  experience would be showing me and putting into practice that listening can tell you who you are. That paying attention can give us the change and the meaning that we so badly seek.

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(1) BBC Radio 4, Inside Health, Wed 7 October 2015http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmg7

other readings:
Adrenaline auto-injector advice for patients, UK Gov.ukhttps://www.gov.uk/…/adrenaline-auto-injector-advice-for-pa…

Adrenaline auto-injectors, European Medicines Agencyhttp://www.ema.europa.eu/ema/index.jsp…

How Mylan tried to keep Teva from selling a generic EpiPenhttps://www.statnews.com/…/2016/08/31/mylan-teva-generic-e…/

 

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