LA Designer: Stuart Karten, Obamacare and a Golden Age for Medical Device Design?

Written by

Makers of “medical devices” have attacked Obamacare because they don’t like the tax it imposes. Not Stuart Karten. The LA-based designer says the Affordable Care Act has launched a golden era for medical device design.

Karten patch

Makers of “medical devices” have attacked Obamacare because they do not like the tax it imposes. Not Stuart Karten. The LA-based designer says the Affordable Care Act has launched a golden era for medical device design. In this interview with DnA, he explains the creative impact of a much-criticized policy and shares some of the mind-bending products that are changing our relationship to our health.

Stuart Karten heads up Karten Design in Marina del Rey. The firm designs consumer products, ranging from blue tooth gadgets through to paintball guns. But their primary source of work is for the medical industry. Since leaving the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) thirty years ago, Karten and his colleagues have designed or researched hundreds of medical devices, including hearing aids stylish enough to please vain, aging boomers; handheld ECG monitors for AliveCor that attach to an iPhone and; patch-like wearable sensors that gather personal health data when applied to the skin, for a subdivision of Avery Dennison (above).

Stuart KartenThese days Karten, left, is smiling. Contrary to the medical device makers and their mouthpieces in Washington, who have cried poverty at a 2 1/2 percent tax on their products that would help offset the cost of expanding medical insurance, he believes the Affordable Care Act and the tax have precipitated a burst of innovation and activity in medical product design.

It is a perspective that differs wildly from the conservative claim that Obamacare represents a government takeover of medicine. Rather, it supports the view that the Act in fact offers an expansion of business opportunities in an increasingly privatized health care system that still has insurance companies at its heart.

“Big business,” he says, “is taking a hit right now in the short term. But in the longterm you are going to see a 4-9 percent increase in all the people moving through the health care industry and all those people that supply to it will eventually reap the benefits.”

The jury is out on how much American patients stand to benefit, cost-wise, especially when one reads shocking reports of hospitals’ runaway invoicing practices.

But Karten says that the tax is driving productivity because any device marketed after the launch of the ACA can build the extra cost into its sale price. Moreover, he believes Obamacare will have a fundamental and positive impact on how healthcare is delivered. The industry “is going from sick care to health care. What’s happening is that is the past doctors in hospitals got paid by doing procedures. Now they will be held accountable for outcomes, so all of a sudden, they actually have to take care of people.”

Karten EKG machineAnd the impact on designers like him? “So now you have to have patients engaged in their outcomes,” meaning Karten Design is involved in “things like helping patients comply with the medication that’s prescribed to them and helping with behavior change.”

One of the projects the firm has developed is an App called the Heart Coach; it downloads information from implantable cardiac defibrilators, enabling patients “for the first time to be exposed to that data, so our App helps them guide their exercise, their pill taking or prescription compliance or even emotional support from caregivers.”

The firm, he says, has also become an expert in “orifices,” especially the ear; they have applied their experience with designing headsets and Bluetooth-related products to refining and beautifying hearing aids for Starkey — now so sophisticated that they can be programmed to filter out background noise in restaurants — so they will be less offputting to the burgeoning numbers of hearing-impaired boomers.

Karten hearing aidAnd they have worked on a device that attaches like a regular case to a smartphone; but put it in your palm, click on an App and you can check your heart rate (above right). This AliveCor ECG monitor, he says, will cost thousands of dollars less than the contraptions currently in hospitals and consultancies.

At the same time though, will gadgets like this, providing instant access to our bodily mechanics, make us humans even more prone to hypochondria? Yes, says Karten, they certainly can. And many of them raise challenging privacy questions.

But the pros far outweigh the cons, in his view. For designers like him, this is an exciting time: “Products for the consumer are about getting people attracted to things and integrating them into their lifestyle. Typically on the medical front, it was like delivering a functionality. Now the ability to create products that patients have an emotional engagement with is the goal in the medical space.”

Karten Products

Captions: Stuart Karten describes the images above, in order of appearance:

1. This wearable sensor can be worn for up to a week, using Vancive Medical Technologies’ proprietary medical adhesive. It helps people capture their vital signs and work with their clinician to improve their health.
2. I founded Karten Design in 1984. The firm, based in Marina del Rey, CA, consists of a team of 30 design researchers and strategists, industrial designers, and mechanical engineers. “Our mission is to create extraordinary experiences between people and products.” 
3. AliveCor came to Karten Design with the first clinically approved ECG monitor that syncs with an iPhone. We helped them explore further applications for this groundbreaking technology.
4. Karten Design has partnered with Starkey Hearing for the past seven years to redefine the hearing aid. Our designs aim to solve common user pain points around hearing aids—especially for older users—and to remove the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids through designs that “disappear behind the ear.”
5. “Our medical products have a ‘cool factor’ influenced by our consumer product experience.” Past products have included paintball equipment, gaming units and kitchen tools.