Instead of thinking outside of the box, University of Michigan architects and doctors are thinking inside of it.

A collaboration between faculty from the University Medical School, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and University Health Service has resulted in the development of a portable, box-like shipping container turned ophthalmology clinic that opened this month in Sandy Bay, Jamaica.

Geoffrey Thun, associate dean for research and creative practice and associate professor of architecture at Taubman College, spearheaded the project’s development alongside David Burke, interim chair of the Department of Human Genetics and professor of human genetics, UHS optometrist Joseph Myers and a team of Taubman designers.

The clinic — a 20-by-8 foot recycled shipping container named “Common Health +” — was delivered and set up in Jamaica by the researchers and a group of volunteers last month. The box contains a number of eye care technologies repurposed from the University Health System.

Thun said in an interview the development of the pop-up clinic combined a number of multidisciplinary efforts, which began in the summer of 2015, resulting in a unique medical facility that could prove beneficial to a number of areas lacking proper eye care as well as other forms of medical treatment.

“As designers, we’re interested in what you can do to make the (clinic) not a container and how you can produce additional possibilities both for how it’s used by the community, but also in terms of the way in which you read the (container),” Thun said. “At the base level, it’s the idea of a set of technologies that is embedded in a hyper-engineered artifact which then requires very low degrees of medical training to be able to operate.”

With funding from a Third Century Initiative grant — a $50 million, five-year initiative at the University created to develop new approaches to teaching and scholarships — the team also plans to ship eyeglass equipment to the Sandy Bay community. The clinic aims to allow patients to use automated technology without requiring medical attention from a professional.

In addition to ensuring the clinic was suitable for medical eye care, the team designed the container keeping in mind variation in climate zones, cultural practices and the potential for the container to play a social role in the community in which it is placed.

Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture, was also involved in the development of the clinic and said eye care is one of the focuses of Burke’s “Deep Monitoring” project due to its non-invasive way of assessing vision health. The project began with a goal of finding actionable ways to address chronic care needs in remote and underserved populations.

“A lot of people in remote locations don’t have access to vision care, they don’t have access to prescription eyeglasses,” Velikov said. “It actually reduces their quality of life, it makes them unable to work and simply by diagnosing someone’s vision and providing things like eyeglasses really transforms people’s lives.”

Velikov added the clinic is more than just a repurposed container; instead, it serves as a self-powering and self-sustainable social space.

Recent Taubman graduate Dan Tish, who traveled to Jamaica last month to oversee the installation of the clinic prototype, echoed Velikov’s sentiments on the clinic’s multidisciplinary uses.

“It was exciting to see the clinic finally in operation at the end of October and start to be a hub for the community,” Tish said. “Every time we were there and the doors were open, it was like a magnet for people to come in — lots of times because no one in the community had ever received an eye care exam.”

Recent Taubman graduate Kallie Sternburgh, who is working on future developments of the clinic, particularly those that could be deployed in the United States for areas such as Highland Park in Detroit, said the clinic provides a longer-term solution to care deficiencies.

“Involving the community off the get go and having the container be such a high visibility point as a prototype for our first version of this was very important,” Sternburgh said. 

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