Creating "Healthwear" for People with Medical Conditions Requires Intense Collaboration
Getting dressed is a daily hurdle for individuals with certain diseases and disabilities. But designers and apparel companies are launching projects to change that. Over 1 billion people, or about 15 percent of the world's population, experience some form of disability, according to the World Bank. That creates an opportunity for organizations to develop “healthwear” to address the unique clothing needs for these individuals.
Care+Wear's retooled arm sleeve. Below, MagnaReady's shirt with magnetic buttons.
Designer Lucy Jones is working to scale up a clothing brand to help wheelchair users gain more independence. The apparel offers more room in the knee and elbow areas, making it easier to pull on while seated. And to make life simpler for people with degenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis, a team at startup MagnaReady designed a shirt with magnetic buttons.
While these projects deliver niche products, high demand has triggered interest from big apparel organizations. Last year, MagnaReady partnered with clothing giant Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) to integrate its patented magnetic technology into PVH's branded clothing lines. But getting the apparel giant to scale up production so that the shirt could be shipped to retail stores required significant market research during the planning stage, says Maura Horton, founder and CEO, MagnaReady, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.
“After PVH understood the market potential of those who have limited mobility and are working in everyday environments, they decided to license the technology,” Ms. Horton says.
“We … work with patients to make sure it's something people actually want to wear.”
—Chat Razdan, Care+Wear, New York, New York, USA
Healthwear project teams must also work closely with medical professionals, patients and manufacturers to make sure the products they develop will meet unique end user needs and strict medical requirements, says Chat Razdan, CEO of Care+Wear in New York, New York, USA.
“For every product, we work with clinicians to make sure everything we're doing is medically superior to anything out on the market,” Mr. Razdan says. “We also work with patients to make sure it's something people actually want to wear.”
Care+Wear produces apparel that allows patients to unobtrusively cover the sites of peripherally inserted central catheters, or PICC lines, that doctors use to administer treatment for a variety of diseases, including cancer. To avoid infection caused by dislodgments, patients are often instructed to wear modified tube socks on their arms over their PICC line sites. But Care+Wear launched a project to develop a more dignified cover in 2014.
During the planning stages, the team spent 10 months producing and testing prototypes with patients and medical professionals. (Team members are typically connected to doctors and nurses for their feedback through an advisory board.) User responses were generally positive—but the initial design had a major flaw. It was constructed like a running sleeve, which, the team learned, meant the PICC line dressing would not be able to breathe, and it would be hard for patients to monitor the site for infection.
By getting this feedback from patients and medical professionals early on, the company was able to retool the product to include a mesh window to facilitate airflow and visibility. But this created a manufacturing challenge, Mr. Razdan says.
“Without the mesh window, you could go to any sock manufacturer and they'd be able to do it,” he says. But the final design meant “we had to create a very different type of product than they've ever done before.” To help the manufacturer reduce production errors, the team created technical specification guidelines that clearly outlined what level of variation was acceptable, he says.
Lessons learned from this process helped Care+Wear ensure a quality final product in its next major project. In 2015, the company launched an initiative to create shirts with easy-access treatment ports located on the chest. The technical guidelines the team created while prototyping had paid off. When the first batch of shirts came off the manufacturing line last August, there was a zero percent defect rate.
“Creating the guidebook is something we now do with every manufacturer,” Mr. Razdan says. —Tegan Jones