Patient Autonomy; Folded in a Vest

Many of us have witnessed how diseases can limit the human spirit and render us powerless. We’ve all run the race for its cure, donated our time, money and/or blood in the hopes that our loved ones would live. We’ve all witnessed the stress cancer puts on a loved one. Terry Clark put it well when he said, “When someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does too.”

How can we ease the stress and give back some autonomy to our loved ones? Gentoo Inc. might have the breakthrough to answer that question.


It starts with diagnosis, the type of cancer, admittance in the hospital, chemotherapy rounds, and then hopefully a patient is discharged. What I’ve described is far more extraneous and taxing; but broadly, those are the steps. Slowly you start to realize fractions of your loved one’s dignity and autonomy disappear due to the repetitive stresses of treatment.

Let’s focus on the discharge process. In other words, a patient is allowed to go home and resume their normal life. But the work isn’t done. Some patients are required to take infusion treatment which is a continuation of chemotherapy outside of the hospital. Many patients begin their cancer treatment as an outpatient as well. This comes in the form of tubing and a plastic bag that holds the outpatient infusion chemotherapy which is transmitted into the bloodstream. Usually, patients pull this around in a carrier device of some sort. Patients are told to go about their everyday lives as if there weren’t a trolley of their medicine attached at the hip.

This is where Gentoo discovered a need. Greg Affsa and Ben Nadeau, the founders of Gentoo, crafted the Gentoo Vest, with one goal in mind: to offer outpatients greater mobility, freedom, and autonomy. Essentially giving power and dignity back to the patient. Gentoo’s mission is to provide a simple solution for this need and problem. They’ve become the “Oxo” of health care, designing a product to make everyday outpatient life easy. Their website states that they aim to distil diseases down to a human scale, therefore, breaking down the barriers in a patient’s life created by diseases in order for a patient’s life to have some flexibility.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 7.03.27 AM
Gentoo Inc. Founders Greg Affsa and Ben Nadeau

The name Gentoo comes from the same line of thinking. It is borrowed from the name of a species of penguins known for uniquely adapting  harsh environments. The line in the penguin’s center where the black meets the white is mirrored in the zipper of the Gentoo Vest. Their slogan, “Human Centered Designed” is a reminder that the vest is designed to meet the needs of the individuals themselves who are existing in a harsh climate.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.32.31 PM.pngThe Gentoo Inc. Logo

Gentoo Inc. which is headquartered in Boston, MA, began as a project in Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Accelerate Innovation + Entrepreneurship challenge. In 2014 Gentoo was a finalist in the esteemed MassChallenge, after which their product was put through a rigorous launching process. The Gentoo Vest was also prominently featured at HealthInno as well as in the MIN64 competition.

This vest is specially developed with a unique weave design similar to high-performance compression sportswear, much like what a cyclist wears when riding. A zipper cuts diagonally down to decrease the material from folding over and maintains that the material holds tightly to the body. A special pocket on the right side is built in, to hold either a patient’s cartridge and pump—or their pump and IV bag set-up. The equipment is unnoticeable.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.16.24 PM

The Gentoo Vest (above): notice the diagonal zipper the cuts down the middle, minimizing the amount of material that bulks up when you sit down.

“What we found after interviewing patients, was not only that the vest made their lives easier, but that they were less of a spectacle,” explained Gentoo founder Greg Affsa, “After understanding this, it became about satisfying that need.”

Hospitals usually offer a fanny pack of sorts to strap about your waist. The medical gear sticks out like a sore thumb, and patients often report a sense of their autonomy has drifted away. There hasn’t been a competing product in this field because those who have to use these devices are usually just thankful to leave the hospital. Now hospitals and those nurses serving outpatients have another option to offer: the Gentoo Vest.

If it weren’t for the two founder’s personal understanding of what outpatients experienced, nurses reported to Nadeau situations of patients using fishing vests to hold all the equipment they were using. It was clear that there is a demand for a better, more streamlined product.

“We initially worked to ease the weight of carrying all the necessary equipment with a mechanical solution” shared Affsa, “But we found that truly patients felt their battle scars were on display and with the Gentoo Vest, a bit of their human dignity could be given back.”

Thomas, a patient from Illinois who uses the Gentoo Vest, couldn’t agree more, “It has truly made a significant impact on my life during treatment, allowing me to feel completely normal again performing day-to-day tasks.  Besides its mechanical benefits, the restored confidence of knowing that my treatment is once again a private matter, something that would not be obvious to a casual observer, has also been a wonderful improvement over the shoulder-strap bag provided by my hospital.”

“With design thinking, we’re given the understanding to never assume that because we can see we know, and it’s a truth to apply all throughout life. It’s definitely been at the core of Gentoo Inc. and the Gentoo Vest,” said Affsa.

It is encouraging to know that Gentoo Inc.’s journey doesn’t stop with their vest. Unless we experience it ourselves, we cannot know the pain or helplessness felt by cancer patient survivors. Gentoo was born from the desire to help such loved ones. Through this desire, Gentoo—and all of us—are fighting the same fight minute to minute of each day.

With Nadeau’s and Affsa’s thoughtful and mindful approach to design and applied empathy, it is fair to think that boundaries to innovation could cease to exist. Consider all the unseen need we’re missing because we think we see everything. It’s nice to know that in some realms human beings could be limitless.


By: Tricia Demmers, Content Curator


Twitter: @triciamaria

Health Care Innovation, Topics, Insights, Opinions & Conversations, Patient Advocacy