Manufacturers brick medical devices, too
Manufacturer "end of life" announcements can brick medical devices. Right to Repair would help.
This article will appear in the June issue of TechNation magazine under the title “Don’t brick my device!”
When we don’t have access to the repair materials we need to fix our devices, we don’t truly own them. A manufacturer’s decision to stop providing software support can turn our software-enabled devices into unusable hunks of junk—‘bricks’ of plastic with nowhere to go but the scrap heap.
Another brick in the wall of e-waste
Sonos provided a notable example of bricking. In 2020, it announced that customers would have to put their smart speakers into irreversible “Recycle Mode” to take advantage of a discount on a new product. Sure, the discount is nice, but why ruin a perfectly good speaker in the process?
Sonos ended up reversing this policy after significant blowback, but that hasn’t prevented other companies from temporarily or permanently bricking smart homes, toasters or tractors by ending software support or withholding repair software and materials needed to put the devices back into use.
6 ways to stop planned obsolescence
Unfortunately, some medical devices are doomed to be another brick in the wall of electronic waste. Let’s look at two examples.
Business—not safety—decision burns sterilizer owners
Stryker’s Sterizone VP4 Sterilizers are used to sterilize flexible endoscopes, cameras, and—during the pandemic—respirators or even N95 masks. Effective cleaning of such reusable products is critical to the safety of patients and staff alike. VP4s can cost roughly $100,000 and require a service contract of up to $30,000 per year, one Canadian biomed told me, but no service training was available to him or his team.
That high cost was one reason that this biomed (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution) was so frustrated when he received a letter from Stryker announcing that they would no longer support the device. The letter states:
“In November 2022, a business decision, not related to the safety or efficacy of the product, was made to suspend the sale and manufacture of VP4 capital equipment. Maintaining parts and service on the VP4 has become increasingly complex and challenging. After careful consideration, we will no longer offer service and disposables sales effective December 31, 2023.”
It’s one thing to make a business decision to stop manufacturing a given product. The Right to Repair movement is not about forcing companies to continue making devices that are no longer profitable.
Even ending service support for devices—provided the materials needed to physically and digitally repair them are publicly available—can be defensible. But when manufacturers monopolize service, they have the power to condemn owners’ products to an early grave. They have the power to force the owner to buy new products before their old one is obsolete.
That fact was plaguing the biomed who sent me Stryker’s letter. “For the $20k Stryker birthing bed I just bought, they have to know that I’m wondering if a Stryker executive is going to decide tomorrow to no longer supply parts and accessories?”
Without access to repair materials, “end of life” announcements send devices to an early grave
Manufacturers sometimes go beyond just ending service support of a product. They physically destroy it.
That’s what happened to a biomed who sent his story to YouTuber and Right to Repair advocate Louis Rossman. This biomed was having trouble with his Eitan Sapphire epidural pump, which is used to manage patients’ pain by injecting an anesthetic or steroid into an area around their spinal nerves.
In this case, the biomed said one of his hospital’s pumps was giving false occlusion alarms, essentially reporting a blockage in flow when there was none. The biomed started troubleshooting: “I tried changing tubing set, making sure we have brand name OEM tubing; adjusting the occlusion sensitivity…I even contacted their clinical support team to make sure that the nurse was using the pump properly per Eitan instructions,” he explained in his video account. “None of this worked.”
Eitan doesn’t sell all replacement and repair parts, the biomed said. So, he turned to a measure of last resort—sending the device back to the manufacturer for repair. He explains, as Right to Repair advocates often argue, in-house service “not only reduces the cost of repair to the hospital but it reduces downtime,” meaning the device can be back in use providing patients with the care they need more quickly.
Because the pump was one year outside of Eitan’s serviceable lifespan of seven years and the problem required more than a simple screen or case replacement, Eitan technically would not support the service. The biomed said that the company had him send it in anyways.
“They sent me back a brick that would never turn on again”
What he got back was shocking. The manufacturer slapped an ‘out of order’ sticker on the front of the pump. “They cut the connection going to the battery. They nicked the wires going to the motor. They shoved a flathead screwdriver through the ribbon cable. And, to top it off…they cut the screen cable,” the biomed explained. “They absolutely demolished this pump. It will never turn on again.”
If you took your car into the dealership and the mechanic noticed your tire tread is low, you wouldn’t expect them to return your car with slashed tires. You’d be furious. That’s essentially what happened with this epidural pump.
The biomed says the manufacturer told him that they did this for his liability. It’s hard to argue with Rossmann’s description of this behavior as gaslighting. “We’re not toddlers. We don’t need choices of liability being made for us by some company,” the biomed said. “We’re all adults here. We can deal with our own issues.”
We need Right to Repair to reclaim ownership of our devices
Without access to comprehensive repair materials, manufacturers retain immense amounts of control over the devices you buy and own. In healthcare, that means your devices can be bricked—or even destroyed—because of a business decision or corporate policy.
Manufacturers might argue that they’re doing this for your safety, your liability. These products are incredibly complex, they say.
The biomed with the pump problem put it best: “With new technology comes new technicians. We will always be able to fix out stuff—unless companies stop imposing these artificial repair restrictions. It’s absolute nonsense.”
Let us fix our stuff
We should give every consumer and every small business access to the parts, tools, and service information they need to repair products by passing Right to Repair reforms.
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Kevin leads U.S. PIRG's work on agricultural and medical Right to Repair. His research has demonstrated how tractor makers limit farmer repair choice, and has worked with more than 100 farmers from all over the country to advance legislation. His work has been published and covered by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Reuters and more.