The state of engineering: Healthcare

A medical professional checks a patients pulse on a table next to a patient chart. The photo was taken from above and arranged as a 'flat lay'.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

9 August 2018


Healthcare engineering is an exciting space to be working right now. The medtech industry has monumental year-on-year growth, the work that feeds into healthcare represents the vast majority of engineering innovation, and the industry epitomises the intersection of technology with human experience. On top of this, not only do innovations in the sector revolutionise the lives of patients, clinicians, and researchers, but a variety of new technologies from other fields are now finding their way into the industry as well.

Healthcare is a hub of multidisciplinary innovation, fusing cutting-edge sector technologies with innovative technologies from outside it. This fusion – in combination with the ever-reducing cost of technology – has led to a new wave of bespoke, low-cost applications that act to reduce the various barriers to effective healthcare.

Consider the winning innovations of the QEPrize. They stem from entirely separate fields of engineering and yet, at the same time, they have all had, directly or indirectly, an impact on healthcare.

The winning innovations

As perhaps the most obvious link of the three, Dr Robert Langer changed the field of healthcare with his development of controlled drug delivery systems. By engineering polymers to control the delivery of large molecular weight drugs, his work has impacted the lives of over two billion people around the world. Other work in the field – such as cell therapy, biopharmaceuticals, stem cell engineering – also continues to advance our understanding of different diseases and health conditions, and provides us with new solutions with which to address them.

Widening the scope slightly – the digital imaging sensor, produced by Eric Fossum, George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi, and Michael Tompsett, has also played a significant role in healthcare. While often associated with entertainment and communications, the innovation has saved countless lives around the world. Through its application in medical technologies such as non-surgical pill cameras, endoscopes, medical scanners, or even for remote consultations with a doctor — which we will get to below — the digital imaging sensor created a new realm of possibility in healthcare.

Our 2013 winners, Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, Louis Pouzin, Tim Berners-Lee, and Marc Andreessen, are credited with engineering the internet and the world wide web, which play an increasingly significant role within the healthcare industry. While the internet may appear to be far removed from the healthcare industry, the epoch of hyper-connectivity produced by the technology has strongly affected the state of healthcare engineering.

The applications of internet technology within the health sciences are broad, allowing for biomedical researchers to communicate and collaborate internationally, and for doctors to remotely consult with and monitor their patients. The internet also improves public access to healthcare information – empowering patients with the ability to learn more about their situation, and to connect with other individuals who may be suffering, or who have suffered, similar health problems. Additionally, a range of subsequent Internet of Things (IoT) devices are now enabling bespoke treatments for people around the world.

Which brings us, finally, to our 2019 winners: Dr Bradford Parkinson, Professor James Spillker, Jr, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz received the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for their work developing the first truly global, satellite-based positioning system – GPS. Calculating your location in three dimensions may not immediately scream 'healthcare benefits', but the myriad applications made possible by their work certainly do. With GPS, we can track disease outbreaks; precisely deliver humanitarian aid drops into combat zones; and transport important medicines to people living in remote areas by drone. If you've ever tracked your workout outdoors on a smartwatch or phone, then you've used GPS for your health.

The Internet of Things

As highlighted earlier, a range of novel technologies developed outside of healthcare are slowly diffusing into the industry. At least in part, this is thanks to the IoT. An array of innovations – each engineered to address a specific condition, disease, or even a specific patient – are becoming better integrated into medical solutions thanks to the IoT.

Wearable technology, for example, has various applications. From monitoring your health and diagnosing illnesses, to transmitting health assessments to medical professionals; the IoT allows portable, always-on technologies to record and transmit accurate health data that assists patients and clinicians to develop bespoke treatments.

While Apple-era wearables may take up the limelight in news headlines, other technologies such as smart tattoos, patches, and ingestible sensors become ever more practical. What’s more, as sensor technology becomes ever smaller, an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) becomes ever more likely to revolutionise healthcare once again.

The state of healthcare

The significant developments in IoT devices accounts for only a small fraction of the excellent work and diverse innovations occurring in the healthcare engineering industry. Colour-changing compression bandages, plug-and-play diagnostic devices, bespoke rehabilitation systems, and self-cleaning smart materials are all examples of recently-engineered technologies offering significant benefits to the healthcare industry. The key message here is that the lingering perceptions of healthcare innovation – often limited to the stereotypical medical equipment you see in hospitals – are outdated.

Healthcare engineering is an exciting, multidisciplinary field of innovation. From nanotechnology and smart materials through to biopharmaceuticals and digital medicine — patients, clinicians, and researchers are benefiting from a breadth of innovative technologies applied all along the pipeline.

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