The urgent need to repair ventilators and other critical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the prevalent practice of manufacturers requiring that even simple repairs be conducted by their technicians. As the right to repair movement gains momentum, a Proto article asks, should hospitals be allowed to fix machines themselves? 

In early 2020 during the first surge of COVID-19, J. Scot Mackeil was helping the state of Massachusetts evaluate some ventilators it had received from the federal government stockpile. Mackeil, a senior biomedical electronics technician for Massachusetts General Hospital, found that one of the machine’s DC power connectors had been crushed during shipment.

Mackeil called the manufacturer and told them, “I’m working for my state’s emergency management agency and I just need a part for a minor repair.” The company’s representative wouldn’t provide the support or sell him parts, saying that Mackeil hadn’t attended the manufacturer’s technical training program. They insisted the ventilator be shipped to the factory for the repair—a basic repair, says Mackeil, that any technician might easily have done.

Representatives of the medical equipment industry, in particular, insist that these policies are a measure to ensure patient safety. But a landmark U.S. FDA report in 2018 found little evidence of “widespread public health concern relating to servicing … of medical devices.”

Read more in Proto.