in need of PPE

Houston tech community answers the call for medical equipment amid coronavirus-caused shortages

A startup and a nonprofit makerspace have rallied to create PPE, or personal protective equipment, for local hospitals. Getty Images

In the span of one day, the founders of Houston-based Lazarus 3D received calls from emergency room directors and physicians and vice presidents of hospitals explaining a dire need for personal protective equipment — like surgical masks and face shields — for medical professionals in the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

"We stopped everything we were doing," says Jacques Zaneveld, co-founder of Lazarus, which makes 3D-printed human organs for surgeons to practice on. "We've moved 100 percent of our focus on developing PPE."

Now, Zaneveld with his co-founder, Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld, have manufacturing orders in for 700,000 surgical masks weekly and have designed a non-FDA approved face shield, which they have ordered a few million of. The duo has taken out a short-term loan to front the cost of the medical equipment and are now looking for the right customers to buy these new PPE products. All hospitals and medical professionals in need of supplies can head to Lazarus' website to request more info.

"Our personal feeling has been to do whatever we can do to build as many as possible," Jacques tells InnovationMap. "It's very stressful because I'm borrowing money that we don't have in order to set up these production lines."

On the other side of town, 3D printing nonprofit TXRX has reprogramed 30 of its 3D printers to make PPE. The nonprofit is working Memorial Hermann to quickly prototype and test items made with materials they can get their hands on.

The Center for Disease Control has relaxed some of the requirements for PPE in light of the crisis and shortage, and Roland von Kurnatowski, president at TX/RX Labs, says that has helped speed up their efforts. But, the biggest challenge, he says, has been to quickly get together a design and prototype for Memorial Hermann to give them feedback so that they can then produce the products.

"I think there are a lot of people out there producing devices, but I think the problem is there's not a lot of clarity around materials, quality, and acceptance. People are doing what they can with what they've got," says von Kurnatowski. "Our hope working with Memorial Hermann was to make sure we are devising and testing devices that are functional and appropriate.

TXRX is also relying on Memorial Hermann and others in the medical community to indicate which PPE devices are most needed. Currently, the nonprofit is printing 10,000 face shields for Memorial Hermann, but also has designs for N95 respirators, surgical masks, a positive air pressure respirator (or PAPR), Tyvek suit, and even a portable shield for the intubation process.

Von Kurnatowski says the Houston community can get involved by donating to TXRX's GoFundMe campaign. The 3D printing process is quick and local, but expensive and out of budget for hospitals, so TXRX is taking a loss on its products it is creating. The organization is also looking for people who might have 3D printing materials or experience to volunteer — TXRX has about 20 people working on this but hopes that number ramps up to 60 to 80 people helping out.

Crisis also brings the community together in their time of need — that's what Zaneveld says he sees happening.

"Everyone who is at all involved in the medical space in engineering in Houston is trying to put stuff out," Zaneveld says. "We're sharing information and trying to work together to support each other."

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.