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Clinician engineers – the future of healthcare?

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“Some people think engineering has nothing to do with healthcare, but the reality is that it has everything to do with healthcare.”

For Dr Neel Sharma, that realisation is fundamental to the future of the the healthcare sector. 

For while medical professionals have the knowledge and skill to treat people as they always have, the growing prevalence of technology in the industry means that gaining an understanding of how these products are made and work is becoming increasingly important. 

“If you have abdominal pain, you may need a CT scan. If you have kidney injury you may need dialysis. If you have issues with your heart such as a blocked vessel, you may need a stent. Robotics are increasingly used in surgery, and without ventilators for COVID-19 we wouldn’t have been able to do anything for our patients,” says Dr Sharma. 

“We have clinicians who are spending so much time with these devices, but they are not clinician engineers. Clinicians are simply tech adopters with no training in how these devices work.” 

To help address this vital issue, Dr Sharma has led the creation of the Clinician Engineer Hub, a network to educate medical students and early career doctors from around the world about the diagnostic and treatment challenges in clinical medicine and how to potentially solve these issues with engineering.

Dr Sharma, a clinician academic registrar in the field of gastroenterology at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, along with two engineering colleagues – Dr Mads Bergholt of King’s College London and Dr Ali Yetisen from Imperial College London – have led the creation of the Hub and are seeing increasing levels of engagement from students and young doctors keen to learn more about the links between clinical medicine and the cutting-edge engineering which are leading the sector’s innovation.  

Having been established in 2019, the Hub has already held a virtual conference with speakers from Microsoft and Google, earned mention by the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, and its fast-developing programme of events includes a prototyping and design concept bootcamp with MBRU Dubai and the Imperial Dyson School of Engineering in August. 

Formulated from his own experience of working in the medical profession, Dr Sharma saw first-hand how technology is routinely not fully appreciated. 

“When I was a medical student and a more junior doctor, you’re taught a concept of how to treat a patient. First you talk to them, establish their medical history, physically examine them, make a diagnosis and manage it from there,” he says.  

“But often, there were limitations in that approach. You can’t always be sure a patient is being transparent with their history, and the ‘medical jargon’ that doctors sometimes speak can cause confusion. 

“In physical examinations, things can sometimes be missed – a few years ago, I worked with cardiologists, where they examined cardiac patients, and safe to say they all came out with slightly different findings. I realised that this way couldn’t be 100 per cent accurate. 

“While the doctors have the knowledge, the technology they are using was playing such an important role in the process. These pieces of equipment were all designed and developed by engineers. 

“It’s quite amusing that still in the medical hierarchy, we don’t talk about the role engineers play in enabling us to do our jobs. We rely heavily on this work yet it’s not acknowledged or linked.” 

After working on the frontline as a young doctor, Dr Sharma took a sabbatical in 2014 to work in Singapore, where he spent time learning engineering concepts from robotics to microfluidics and optics, as well as startup tech businesses, under the mentorship of Professor Khek Yu Ho, to see for himself the impact of their work in technology and its impact on delivering healthcare. 

“I learnt so many things about the role of engineering and the impact it could have on healthcare and on people’s lives,” he recalls. 

“In one startup, their robotics were helping to improve cancer removal without the need for surgery. I became certain of the need for us to have more realisation of that internationally so I thought ‘Let’s go for it and see what we can do’.”

From there, came the concept of the Clinician Engineer Hub, a free-of-charge programme to engage young aspiring medical minds in concepts ranging from robotics through to 3D printing.

While it launched as an in-person programme with opportunities to learn in all three partner organisations, it has continued online during the COVID-19 pandemic, broadening its global reach further. 

“When we launched the Clinician Engineer Hub, I came along essentially saying ‘This is what I’d like to do’ and the support has been great,” says Dr Sharma.  

“The universities have collaborated on this, and the next generation doctors are super interested. Maybe the more senior ones don’t get it, but that’s fine. 

“We really want to help ideas grow, if students have an idea then we can help them connect with the universities or individuals in our network who can make it happen. We want to show what happens through making connections with people who are receptive. 

“I’ve always felt in life that the more you engage, the more ideas come, but in the hierarchy we live in, a lot of the time young people go up to someone more senior with an idea and they just get a ‘No’. I don’t think I’ve said no to an idea yet. 

“My approach is that you’ve presented this idea, so you’re empowered to lead it. If you get into a bind in any way, then I’ll support you. 

“And so far, every event has worked. We’re doing some really interesting things. One of our students from Canada said she was really interested in running a hackathon, ClinHacks, and that was really successful. This featured experts from IBM who taught  coding, which was great. 

“We’re at the stage now where we’re getting success stories. One of our students came onto the programme so excited about it, they’re now doing a sabbatical in biomedical engineering at Imperial. That’s really cool to hear.” 

As for the medical profession, Dr Sharma believes the Clinician Engineer Hub has an increasing role to play in helping to broaden the minds of doctors entering the profession, and helping them understand technology and its vital role in their work. 

“We’re at the point now in healthcare where we’re using technology in the form of new apps and doing things virtually and online, which is really cool, but it’s not touching the surface of what we could do,” says Dr Sharma.  

“I still feel the focus is on revolutionising the likes of online clinical systems and quite basic things, in comparison to what we could be doing. We should be really going for it.

“Through the work we’re doing, as well as understanding the technology they’re working with, we believe that doctors trained in engineering methods can then move on to develop new solutions for the betterment of patient care. The work we are starting could be very exciting for the future.” 

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