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Collaborate to Innovate

Jamie_Halo.tifThere has been no shortage of pixels and ink devoted to healthcare reform in recent years, much of which surrounds the creation of an IT infrastructure that would use electronic medical records and health information exchange to share access to medical information. Billions of dollars in public grants have been awarded to create such a system, which is intended to improve the quality of care and lower costs by connecting healthcare providers, insurers and patients in a collaborative network. But there are other healthcare technology breakthroughs that are achieving those goals right now via design, testing, analysis, additive manufacturing and high-performance computing.

Like the drive to finally digitize and share health information, medical device design can benefit from collaboration. When engineers interact with doctors, inventions like the VGo Robotic Telepresence System are born. VGo allows caregivers to essentially be in two places at once to check on distant patients via a remote-controlled robot. When engineers talk with patients, it yields 3D-printed prosthesis, robotic exoskeletons, and vision augmented implants. When computer-aided engineering specialists take the time to understand the healthcare industry’s needs and educate regulators on technology, it leads the Food and Drug Administration to support work on a virtual patient and encourage the use of simulation in medical device design.

Unexpected Pairings

The articles in Desktop Engineering often stress the need for engineers from different disciplines to break through the walls that have traditionally separated mechanical and electrical design, for instance, to learn from each other and improve the design process. But if we take that idea a step further, beyond the confiners of engineering, a number of opportunities arise.

Last month’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference is a good example. It has become one of the must-attend technology venues for many companies (including 3D Systems and MakerBot this year), because it provides a place where music, independent films, and emerging technologies converge. That convergence draws thousands of people who are seen as trend setters and innovative thinkers.

Another conference, TEDMED, which takes place April 16-19 in Washington, D.C., does the same for healthcare and technology. It brings together people from many disciplines–engineers, medical professionals, designers, musicians, community activists, regulators, artists and more–to discuss healthcare’s “Great Challenges,” which it defines as: “complex, persistent problems that have medical and non-medical causes, impact millions of lives, and affect the well-being of all of America–beginning with patients, and extending to families and citizens everywhere,” according to tedmed.com/greatchallenges. “These knotty problems are not susceptible to simple cures, magic bullets or ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions because they stem from broad, interlocking social, economic and psychological sources as well as from medical or scientific triggers. What’s more, each challenge creates multiple, overlapping effects that may cut across all sectors of society.”

Complex Problems Require Collaborative Solutions

Does TEDMED’s description of healthcare’s great challenges sound familiar? It’s not difficult to make the leap from medical to engineering challenges. Both can be complex, cut across multiple sections of society and involve collecting and organizing massive amounts of data (which we’ll focus on in next month’s issue). Likewise, both are strengthened when stakeholders venture outside their comfort zones and get a different perspective on a complicated issue–whether its personalized medicine or design optimization.

The examples of innovation in this issue barely scratch the surface of what can be accomplished at the intersection of engineering and healthcare. As computing power progresses and the medical industry continues to find creative uses for advanced simulation and additive manufacturing, the products and processes design engineers contribute to the field will save and improve lives in ways our most innovative thinkers are imagining today.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the editorial director of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.