Design for America partnered to tackle mobility problems among older adults with Medline Industries, the largest privately owned medical manufacturing company in the US. Excited about the social innovations they could design for the elderly community, DFA teams from across the country gathered at Medline Headquarters in Northfield, IL to present solutions that tackle mobility challenges faced by older adults.

Healthcare challenges have garnered interest from DFAers since DFA began: the very first project tackled type-1 Diabetes care with Jerry the Bear, and DFA projects have gone on to build award-winning healthcare initiatives, including Luna Lights and SwipeSense. DFA teams who applied to join the Medline challenge shared their passion for addressing this challenge: “We want to create a lasting effect that can increase independence and mobility. We hope to create change that promotes a healthy lifestyle and prevent future injuries,” said Jennifer Kracha from CU Boulder. Case Western team member Heather Schneck added, “We believe that we must attune ourselves to the evolving needs of aging populations, so that we do not risk diminishing the vibrancy of both individual qualities of life and local communities.”

Timothy and Jennifer from CU Boulder present Chameleon (left) and The Cricket (right), the two prototypes they designed to address the problem of maneuvering tight spaces and building upper body strength while using mobility devices.

The five teams selected for the Medline partnership dove right into the design process by interviewing older adults and professionals in rehab centers, independent living communities, and hospitals. From there, they were able to identify specific issues, such as the difficulties in getting around with existing walkers/rollators, or the mental barriers around using mobility aids that discourage active lifestyles.

Medline’s experts from the Durable Medical Equipment Division gave feedback on each team’s progress. In just 10 weeks, DFA teams designed and tested low-fi prototypes before presenting them at company headquarters. Anna Lehner, Innovation Manager for Medline said: “Working with students who have new perspectives on problems that our teams work on every day is extremely valuable. Everyone was impressed on expo day; the student progress in such a short amount of time, on voluntary projects, speaks wonders about them and their futures.”

Teams present their prototypes to Medline staff in the Atrium.

Final concepts ranged from quick add-ons for current mobility aids such as pedometers to promote fitness and recovery, to complete redesigns of the walker to encourage activity, maintain good posture, and navigate complex passageways.

Each design leveraged the diverse team’s variety of skill sets. Ellen Arigorat, a nursing graduate student from NYU, commented: “The interdisciplinary group dynamic helped us integrate healthcare into engineering.”

Andy Mills, President of Medline Industries, noted the importance of having leaders champion innovation; “What I saw in the presentations was terrific! You saw problems that you wouldn’t know unless you talked to the users. The research is on track and well done and the solutions designed are very impressive.”

“Everyone brought something new to the table, which is not easy to do in a 50 year old industry,” added Emily Berman, Senior Product Manager, Durable Medical Equipment.

Andy Mills, president of Medline, shared stories of various artwork inspired by Medline’s own products as he led DFA teams on a tour of the new Medline campus.

Medline’s innovation in the medical equipment industry doesn’t end with products. A new corporate campus displays the company’s history and products in novel ways: archways of ventilator tubing, art created from hundreds of adhesive bandages, and wallpaper and lamp shades based on hospital gown fabrics highlight the company’s creative culture. DFAers excitedly received an exclusive tour of Medline’s headquarters after presentations, where Andy showcased their space, much of it designed by Medline employees.

Before the final goodbyes, teams were able to take a valuable look into how innovation happens in a corporate setting. Medline staff from Product Management, Quality Control, and Sales Divisions answered questions about what it’s like to bring new innovation to the highly regulated, ever-changing healthcare industry.

We are grateful for the support and engagement of Medline partners Anna Lehner, Andy Mills, and the DME team. “This experience allowed our team to grow as designers,” said Lizy Pollack, DFA MSU. We also want to thank the hard-working DFA teams from CU Boulder, Case Western, MSU, NYU, and Northwestern for their dedication, and we are pleased to share that one team is interested in advancing their idea further with Medline. We can’t wait to see more from these DFAers as they continue to create impact with design!