By Patrick Lynch, CBET, CCE, CHTM, CPHIMS, FACCE
Technology has brought a world of opportunities and possibilities to the world. New and exciting devices are opening doors that we never imagined. In fact, I’ve heard that the average phone now holds more computing power and capabilities than the spaceship that travelled to the moon in 1969. We are indeed fortunate to live in these times of wonder. I have often said that my only lament when I die (hopefully a long time from now!) will be that I won’t get to see what happens tomorrow. This is a great time to be alive.
But consumers are plagued by a new problem that is engineered into almost every automobile, phone, and medical device that we use daily. That problem is planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is when the designer or manufacturer of a device purposely does something to the device to shorten its lifespan. Years ago, this was not a problem, as everybody built things to last longer.
This is evidenced by the large numbers of Toyota cars on the road from the ’80s and ’90s; Timex watches “take a licking and keep on ticking;” “Nothing runs like a Deere,” as in John Deere tractors; Rolex watches; and Sears tools warrantied for life (I am still using some that I bought in the 1970s).
These days, manufacturers (most, but not all) intentionally under-engineer or degrade their products to make them wear out sooner. The money to be made is in the sale of the new model. To sell the new ones, they must make the old ones wear out. This is done by putting poorer materials into mechanical devices. With electronic devices, they can be made to cease working when the clock says they have reached a predefined age.
Haven’t we seen medical devices that display error messages requiring maintenance based on a calendar date instead of real need? These error messages are designed to worry the end user into thinking that they are using an unsafe device, which causes anxiety and triggers a call for service (hopefully to the original manufacturer).
What ever happened to the Maytag repairman, who, in the commercials, always was sitting around because the Maytag washers never broke? These days. products are made to require regular maintenance, or else display an annoying message that failure is imminent if proper service is not performed. And then it requires replacement after a few years, because it is ‘no longer supported’ or because it is ‘not economical to repair.’ I posit that these frequent maintenance procedures and shortened lifespans are not natural, but rather induced purposely by the manufacturer of the devices.
We certainly have the skills and technology to make medical devices that run for years and years. There was a recent photo of a warranty seal from a Hewlett Packard ECG monitor that was unbroken since the year 2000. Never a failure in 18 years! That used to be the norm, but not anymore.
Sure, some medical devices should be replaced frequently for reasons of technological obsolescence, safety concerns, and more economical ways of doing things. But to be discarded because they can’t be maintained is ridiculous. New materials and manufacturing techniques should lengthen the lifespan of equipment, not shorten it.
Time to Take Action
The French may have found a solution. Several years ago, they passed a law forbidding planned obsolescence for all products. This law expressly prohibits manufacturers from taking steps to purposely shorten the life of their equipment and products. You may Google “planned obsolescence France” to learn more about current activities related to this law. My recent query yielded articles that Apple is under investigation for purposely building planned obsolescence into its iPhone. Other actions include Epson and other printer companies related to ink cartridges that reported themselves to be empty before they really were.
Think of the impact that a vigorously enforced law in the United States could have on medical device manufacturers. We might go back to the days when no item of equipment was considered for replacement unless a better (read ‘safer,’ ‘cheaper,’ or ‘more effective’) device is available. Almost never would equipment be retired because it just wore out.
As working HTM professionals, how many times have we seen equipment serviced when it was not required, or retired from use when it still had many years of life left? I work with medical foundations that prepare and send medical equipment and computers to developing countries. I travel several times per year to install and deploy these “old” items. I can attest that they are not useless, not unsafe, nor expensive to maintain, but for some reason, they are not deemed as serviceable in the U.S. Many are removed from service simply because the manufacturer has declared them as ‘end-of-life’ and chosen not to support them any longer. This scares many hospitals into thinking that they must upgrade and buy new items.
I think it is time that we take affirmative action and pass a law that makes it a criminal offense for companies to purposely make their equipment obsolete before its time.
Patrick Lynch, CBET, CCE, CHTM, CPHIMS, FACCE, is a biomedical manager with 40 years’ experience. Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of 24×7 Magazine.