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Engineering is a broad-based education that focuses on understanding and applying key theoretical concepts to design innovative products for the public good.  Even so, it is perhaps a bit surprising that, regardless of our specialization and discipline, we can all make valuable contributions to health care.

Often, novel developments involve combining knowledge from several different fields of study; indeed, the fact that many universities like Western offer concurrent degrees featuring a wide spectrum of curricula demonstrates a response to that industry need.  The obvious, and trendy, connections come from programs with a bio- prefix, but the health care profession desperately needs all of us to contribute.

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the various ways that all of us can impact the health care profession, in disparate and traditionally unrelated fields such as electronics, software design, materials science, thermodynamics, environmental engineering, water resources protection or any of the many fields Engineers work in, all of us have society at heart.  The Engineers’ Code of Ethics emphasizes that we have a duty to the public, above all else; it comes before loyalties to our employer, clients, colleagues and even ourselves.

Engineering is different from other professions because we work under various constraints, including public safety, cost, legal restrictions, environmental friendliness and implementation timelines.  These pose some of our greatest challenges as engineers, since we must always know how we fit into the big picture; this is why systems engineering is so important.

All too often, our education neglects an important design component: how users interact with the product.  Because it is difficult to quantify the costs of staff training and reduced efficiency of poorly designed tools, it is easy to overlook these opportunities for significant cost savings.  By simply tailoring our products to the customer’s usage process, we can improve efficiency and thus reduce costs.

In the realm of health care, the media generally portrays the problems as systemic, due to lack of funding and a shortage of staff.  Engineers can play an integral role in improving health care by devising ways to streamline the process.

For example, the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario implemented software to track its $2.5-million inventory of medical instruments in the cycle of use and subsequent sterilization.  In the same vein, the LHSC worked with HP to begin digitally tracking its blood infusion pump equipment, to increase capital utilization and thus free up room in the budget to explore other projects or hire more staff.

At the same time, keeping track of patients’ medical records can be a daunting task in a busy hospital, so there is a need for a system that allows fast entry and retrieval of patient data, especially between different institutions.  With millions of Canadians requiring emergency care each year, the implications are immense: we can save days’ worth of labour hours by devising ways for all health care professionals to work together, especially inter-departmentally.

Once established, this systemic interoperability can provide further cost reductions by helping doctors avoid duplicate work—it reduces the chances of inadvertently ordering the same test twice or ordering unnecessary tests.  It can also reduce the risk of error by helping to keep track of drug interactions automatically, which could reduce workplace stress.

It is easy to see the many ways that Software, Electrical and Computer Engineers can benefit the health care industry.  However, though it is much less apparent, it is no less significant how other engineers can contribute to health care.  Indeed, as with many industries, this type of innovation must ideally involve interdisciplinary teams.

The role of an engineer is to identify problem areas and devise effective solutions.  The very nature of our industry demands that we always consider many constraints simultaneously, and the health care profession is no different.  We all want to improve patient care and reduce the environmental footprint of hospitals and long-term care facilities, but we have to do so within the constraints of legal restrictions, budgeting and related deadlines.  Often, this does not directly relate to technology, but the optimal placement of everything.

We have ignored it in favour of cost reductions for decades, but facility design can actually have a profound impact on patient care and result in a net decrease in cost.  It can be difficult to see how psychology affects patient treatment, so mental health is an overlooked component of patient care.  The austere and sterile façade that characterizes so many hospitals could have numerous effects on our mental health and that of health care workers.

While not the most glamorous of undertakings, these projects can have a significant impact on increasing productivity; it is a wonder that they are not proposed more often.  Perhaps it is a question of the large capital investment and the notion that better building design will not have good returns on investment.  While preparing a design to meet new building code legislation, the Sutter Health Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, California, undertook the daunting task of creating an environment more conducive to effective patient care—things like accessibility for disabled persons, using sophisticated new technologies to streamline the process and to make the new building more environmentally sustainable.  The new hospital design responds to a change in usage patterns: on average, the length of a patient visit is now shorter than ever.

This change poses various challenges for all engineers.  Civil Engineers must construct the building cheaply but with concern for the long life requirements and chaotic atmosphere of the hospital.  Electrical Engineers must ensure the continuity of the power system, while Computer and Software Engineers must ensure that the system is reliable enough to replace the paper medical records formerly used.  Systems Engineers must ensure that everything works well, while minimizing the enormous building’s environmental footprint.

There are so many outstanding questions that the Engineers of tomorrow will have to answer.  With material costs on the rise, how can we ensure that the inevitable construction of new buildings is affordable?  How can we implement computers and other technologies without reducing overall productivity?  Health care is a field we, as Engineers, will have to watch closely.

Over the past few decades, we have seen the increasing demand on our health care system.  Society has a clear need for better health care facilities, and Engineers, working with doctors, nurses and politicians must be ready to face these new challenges.  We all have something to contribute to an important industry, and we face the certain knowledge that there will be dire consequences if we do not.  At the end of the day, it’s not just the bio- prefix that matters.

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