MIT hackathon takes on true healthcare design challenge: The breast pump

Most of the time, I think men can’t handle the reality of women’s health. It’s messy, bloody, lumpy, hard to relate to, unpredictable. This is a big reason that women aren’t included in clinical trials in the same numbers as men and women do not receive the same care that men do, particularly women who […]

Most of the time, I think men can’t handle the reality of women’s health. It’s messy, bloody, lumpy, hard to relate to, unpredictable. This is a big reason that women aren’t included in clinical trials in the same numbers as men and women do not receive the same care that men do, particularly women who have heart disease.

I was delighted to see this attitude is changing, particularly around the squishy and controversial topic of breastfeeding. MIT’s Media lab is holding a hackathon this weekend to modernize the breast pump. More than 150 breast pump users, engineers, designers, lactation specialists and educators have signed up. The organizers were inspired by a blog post from the New York Times in March. Two writers who are also parents wondered why the pump is stuck in the ’50s:

Edward Lasker, an engineer, produced the first mechanical breast pump and secured the patent in the 1920s. In 1956, Einar Egnell created the Egnell SMB breast pump, a more efficient answer to Lasker’s original design. Nearly 60 years later, little has changed about the fundamental design of the mechanical pump.

The MIT team has 4 women and 3 men on it and 6 of them have kids. The group held a session earlier this year to understand the basic requirements of a breast pump as well as why it desperately needed a makeover:

The goals for the hackathon were to educate ourselves and our colleagues about the mechanics of breast pumping, discuss design challenges posed by current technologies and societal norms, and generate ideas for how we could change our machines and our society to make breastfeeding and breast pumping a normal, painless, and not-degrading experience for moms. … Our larger goal is to help fuel a culture of innovation in the space of maternal and neonatal health, a space that typically lags behind other fields in technological innovation.

Whoo hoo! The power of parents to make life better for everyone! Hooray for the daring of the Media Lab to take on something that has none of the digital health cool factor of a FitBit or an Apple Watch! The team explained why American families need a 21st century breast pump:

…breastfeeding is hard: it’s hard to initiate the breastfeeding relationship and it’s also hard to maintain it, particularly for families who live in one of the four countries considered “Maternal Health Backwaters”: Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States of America (yup, the USA is in this group). These are the only countries in the world who do not grant paid parental leave on the birth of a new child. Mothers often return to a workplace that may not be supportive of breastfeeding, may not grant time to pump, may not have a space other than a bathroom or closet to pump, may not have a place to refrigerate pumped milk, and may not have colleagues that understand or appreciate what is going on.

I can testify that breastfeeding is hard and pumping is no fun – vaguely humiliating and definitely embarrassing. I was lucky enough to have a supportive boss and a husband with a flexible work schedule – two key ingredients for extended breastfeeding.

The hackathon isn’t taking any new signups because all available spots are filled. The group has a Facebook page where people can post ideas and just created a web page for people to post submissions as well.

Pump manufacturers are involved also. According to comments from one of the organizers on the Facebook page, Vecna, Medela and Naia Health are prize sponsors. All ideas and intellectual property generated during the event will be open source, available license-fee-free and royalty-free to the public.

As this is an MIT event, better design and data collection are two of the goals of the project, but changing our society’s attitudes toward breastfeeding is on the to-do list as well. The hackathon teams will be working to support these ideas too:

  • Education and distribution: A “Tupperware party”-style system whereby women could try out breast pumps and flanges prior to giving birth; comic books instead of medical instruction manuals; a website with free expert advice and real-time help
  • Demedicalizing: Making knitted cozies for the breast pump; softer and warmer materials to put on mom’s body

Bravo to the Media Lab and all the people who have signed up to hack the breast pump. It is amazing to see a healthcare challenge that is unique to families get such high-profile attention.