Wednesday, 8 July 2020

What does the future of engineering look like? A Biomedical Engineering Perspective

Ella Leatt, Cohort 2019

Biomedical engineers are professionals which combine the disciplines of biology and engineering in order to apply engineering principles in medical fields.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, biomedical engineering has come to the forefront of future technologies as a light has been shone on the need for virtual healthcare. Engineers will be required to develop technologies which will alter the way we manage our healthcare. We have already seen a shift in the way we view our own health with apps and smartwatches, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Basic vital signs monitoring and the ability to track fitness and exercise have become relatively mainstream through smartwatches and fitness trackers. More advanced technologies are beginning to emerge which could give us greater insights into our health and wellbeing. One such technology has been developed by Health.io. The idea is that users can take an image of a urine dipstick included in the kit and the results of the test will be displayed to the patient and automatically sent to their records for clinical follow-up. This technology has been designed to target people at risk of kidney disease but could be applicable to millions of people. Health.io has already raised $30 million in investment funding for this technology.

3D printing is having a huge impact on the healthcare world, and its applications are vast. There are hopes that we could one day print organs for transplants using the patient’s own stem cells. This would generate much lower risks of rejection and eliminate the need for a donor list; over 400 people in the UK died waiting for a transplant last year alone. Another application of this technology is the use of open source design to print bionic limbs which would make them widely available to the public. One father made headlines after printing his son a prosthetic arm at home proving that anyone, given the right instruction and a 3D printer, could theoretically print a bionic limb.

Virtual humans are an exciting prospect for the future of healthcare. They use data and algorithms to simulate your body. This would be accurate from the way your heart beats and your lungs breathe to your genetic makeup. A virtual you would allow doctors to simulate drugs in order to make decisions on dose and where to deposit them within the body. It would also enable surgeons to practise surgeries virtually enabling them to decide on the best treatment plan or practise a risky surgery such as a brain aneurysm. Once these surgeries have been done successfully by human hands, robots could theoretically be programmed to replicate this, potentially removing human surgeons from surgery altogether. There are endless opportunities for this sort of technology.

Ultimately the development of this field would have a significant impact on the NHS. Patients would be able to monitor their health more effectively from home, enabling early interventions and reduction in hospital admissions. Patients could be monitored successfully in the community resulting in shorter hospital stays. Fewer drugs would be wasted and patients wouldn’t face as many side effects leading to faster recovery periods.

The benefits of these technologies not only lie with the NHS, but with developing countries. Healthcare could reach some of the most remote areas of the world. Cheaper prosthetics could be made available to amputees around the globe. 3D printing could be used to provide a variety of low-cost medical devices such as wheelchairs and crutches. Hospitals could use data science to manage their hospitals more efficiently and free up beds.

I’m excited to see the future of biomedical engineering and how engineers can use their skills to enable healthcare professionals to provide tailored treatment and more accurate and efficient care as well as allow us to individually manage our own health and wellbeing.

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