When Covid-19’s first surge hit Boston in 2020, biomedical engineer Scot Mackeil knew every single ventilator mattered. Recruited by a local hospital to vet ventilators from a federal stockpile, he examined hundreds of the life-sustaining machines. When he came across one ventilator with a crushed power cord, he thought it’d be an easy fix — he’d simply ring up its manufacturer to ask for a replacement cord.
“I never imagined that I would get the reaction that I got,” said Mackeil, a senior biomedical engineering technologist based in Quincy, Massachusetts. “‘Oh, absolutely no, we cannot send you a power plug,’” he recalled them telling him. “‘You’re not qualified to work on our pressure-driven transport ventilator. You haven’t attended our service school.’”
The Covid-19 pandemic crystallized a problem that has long plagued hospitals and biomedical engineers: many can’t maintain or repair their machines without the green light from medical device makers. In a survey of 222 medical repair professionals conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in June 2020, 92% reported that manufacturers had refused to provide them with service information for critical equipment including defibrillators, ventilators, and anesthesia and imaging machines, and 89% had been denied replacement parts.
“There are some companies and unfortunately, I think many of them, are more strict about what they control in terms of the service manuals and parts, so we’re not able to repair ourselves at the hospital level,” said Jarone Lee, a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
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