The Medical Devices You Design Treat Chronic Disease—But Do EEs Want That Role in Someone’s Health?January 12, 2020 by Robert Keim
Whether we like it or not, electrical engineers are deeply implicated in the world’s confusing and expensive quest for quality of life.
A friend of mine recently reminded me that members of my generation will probably die younger, on average, than our parents. Someone else in the room suggested that this is due to deaths not directly associated with illness.
“Actually, no,” he responded. The cause will be chronic disease. Ok, fine. That’s his opinion. The trouble is, this friend happens to be an intelligent, thoughtful, distinguished physician at a major regional hospital. When an opinion is based on a mountain of formal education and twenty-some years in the trenches of modern healthcare, I’m inclined to listen.
Lifespan, though, is only part of the story.
Most human beings like to be not only alive but also happy, and one of the most effective destroyers of happiness is chronic disease. I am very concerned about the collective well-being of U.S. society when I read that the majority of adults have at least one chronic health condition. And this isn’t just a North American problem. The United Nations is mobilizing resources to try to combat what has become a serious worldwide trend of chronic suffering and premature death.
Person using a glucose monitor. Image used courtesy of Montri Thipsorn
In recent years, those healthcare resources have increasingly focused on biomedical technologies—technologies that only electrical engineers can create. A discussion of this blurring line between healthcare science and electronics innovation can help us grapple with a reality where engineers are integral players in treating chronic disease.
Health through Engineering
Emory University in Atlanta recently broke ground on a biomedical research facility. The goal, of course, is to “find new ways of improving health,” and the means to this end are “advanced imaging, flow cytometry, … and other state-of-the-art technologies.”
Ground-breaking ceremony of the Health Sciences Research Building at Emory University. Image used courtesy of Emory University
For me, it’s somewhat strange to read material like this, because it seems that electrical engineers have become a crucial bridge between various fields—cellular biology, physiology, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, theoretical physics—and the real-life healthcare world inhabited by doctors, nurses, and patients.
We live in a technological, and now thoroughly electronic, society, so it’s only natural that we would persistently emphasize the benefits and successes of electronic medical technology. The question is, Do we really belong in this position?
A closer look at recent examples of EE-healthcare collaborations reveals the ways in which the two fields are converging.
Fitbit, for example, has recently announced an alliance with Bristol-Myers Squibb-Pfizer, a major pharmaceutical company; the well-known biomedical firm is hoping that its health-monitoring devices can provide early warning for people at risk of stroke.
Another instance appeared in CalTech's recent article about a wearable sensor that measures levels of certain compounds in sweat that would allow doctors to more effectively monitor patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Researcher monitors data from flexible sweat sensors on a volunteer. Image used courtesy of Caltech
At the end of October 2019, Zenerchi announced that with more than $2.1 million in seed funding, the company was creating medical technology so advanced that I can hardly make sense out of it (what is a 4D human body simulator?).
These are just a few examples of the ever-deepening relationship between electrical engineering and the quest for health. I’m concerned, though—financial and human resources are limited, and what if these new technologies aren’t able to reverse the trend of chronic diseases, which according to the World Health Organization are the leading cause of humanity’s death and disability and are “accelerating globally, advancing across every region and pervading all socioeconomic classes”?
The Future of Biomedical Electronics
There are no easy answers here. Electrical engineers undoubtedly have a role to play in the ongoing struggle for quality of life and freedom from oppressive illnesses, but I’m no longer convinced that we understand exactly what that role should be. We need to recognize that our thoroughly electronic approach to medical care isn’t working as we hoped it would, but then again, we don’t have a feasible, large-scale alternative that can serve as a point of comparison.
What’s your take? Will electrical engineers become an increasingly vital link in the treatment of chronic disease? Do you want to be that vital link? Or is it time to consider new paradigms in which electrical engineering has a more subdued status in the global quest for vibrant health and longer life?