Right to Repair Groups Fire Shots at Medical Device Manufacturers

The website iFixit has long been known for its electronics repair kits and for its very public stance that repair manuals should be accessible to everyone. That’s one of the foundational arguments of the broader right-to-repair movement, which lobbies that regular consumers should be able to repair the products they've purchased—everything from smartphones to washing machines to farming equipment—without violating a warranty. Now, in the time of Covid-19, iFixit and a prominent consumer interest group are tackling a more immediate concern: access to repair manuals for medical devices.The company said today it’s releasing what it calls the “most comprehensive medical equipment service database in the world.” The collection of thousands of files is supposed to help biomedical engineering technicians—the techs who update or fix medical equipment on site at health care facilities—repair everything from imaging equipment to EKG monitors to ventilators. iFixit founder and CEO Kyle Wiens (who also contributes to WIRED's Ideas section) called it an “absolutely massive” undertaking for iFixit, a project that took more than two months to coordinate and required help from 200 volunteers.
The rollout of the iFixit database is also coming on the heels of a letter sent to state legislators by Calpirg, the California arm of the US Public Interest Research Group, with more than 300 signatures from hospital repair experts. In the letter, the group calls for loosened restrictions on repairs of medical equipment and more cooperation from makers of medical devices.“Covid-19 is putting incredible stress on our medical system, including the work of hospital biomedical repair technicians,” says Emily Rusch, Calpirg’s executive director. Repair and maintenance issues have increased on devices like ventilators, she said, which are being used around the clock. “While some manufacturers provide service information, other manufacturers make it hard to access manuals, read error logs, or run diagnostics tests.”
Many of the arguments that Calpirg and iFixit make are similar to the right-to-repair arguments that have been made against giant tech companies like Apple and Microsoft—and they’re likely to rankle medical device makers as much as they have electronics makers. If you own an iPhone or an Xbox, you should be able to repair it yourself or get it repaired by a technician of your choice, goes the thinking of right-to-repair groups; while lobbyists on behalf of the tech giants maintain that allowing anyone and everyone to tinker with their electronics could pose serious safety and security concerns.
But the debate over medical device repairs is different in that both proponents of the right to repair and the trade groups that argue for stricter repair regulations are ultimately sounding the same alarm: They’re concerned about patient safety. Biomedical engineers say they want easier access to repair manuals so that they can better and more quickly fix the medical equipment needed to save lives. Conversely, organizations like the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance say they want to see more quality control and regulatory requirements put in place around the work medical technicians do because that, they believe, will save lives.
“If the iPhone isn’t fixed, you’re not going to have a phone,” says Nader Hammoud, manager of biomedical engineering at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek, California, and a supporter of the Calpirg initiative to reduce repair restrictions. “If you don’t fix a vent, the patient is dead.”

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Wiens said he had been aware of the needs of biomedical repair technicians for years but had decided not to post anything publicly about it, whether that meant issuing statements or publishing a repair guide on iFixit.com. His thinking changed in mid-March, when scattered stories about the coronavirus suddenly morphed into a full-fledged global pandemic.
“It all crystallized for me when we were seeing ventilators in Italy fail, and a [startup group] was 3D-printing valves for them,” Wiens says. “And we started thinking, OK, if ventilators are being used more than normal, they might fail more than normal, and the biomed technicians are going to be on the front lines alongside everyone else.”