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Training a New Generation of Engineers for Medical Device Companies

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Digital technology has revolutionized the medical instrument and device industry. The equipment that is used today has become capable of utilizing and collecting vast amounts of data and information. For example, people suffering from cardiovascular disease or stroke have been greatly benefited by wearable digital devices that record physiological and behavioral data. Recording accurate metrics on heart rate and physical activity have been a serious asset to healthcare professionals.

But many argue that this new data has brought about a new challenge. Most of the engineers who have taken on the task of designing the next generation of medical devices are often not trained in a medical field. A significant gap seems to have emerged between the industries that treat diseases and the engineers tasked with designing the machines that aid the medical field in their tasks.

There is no clear solution to this problem. Both fields of engineering and medicine are highly specialized. To try and reduce the gaps in these two professions, many medical device companies have begun to more aggressively pursue collaborative efforts between doctors and engineers. These situations often involve a doctor pitching an idea for a medical device while allowing a team of engineers to build the more technical components. But this design process has its limitations. As medical technology becomes more advanced, it has become clear that professionals with expertise in both fields are in extremely high demand.

Many of the solutions that future technology will provide require feats of engineering that are grounded in a deep and fundamental understanding of the disease or condition they are looking to treat. The industry’s outlook is still an exciting one. Ongoing and improving educational structures will continue to allow new students and professionals to gain the combination of training that is required for tackling these complex issues.

Some universities are taking on the challenge of training medically educated engineers, like John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, which has developed multiple specialized fields like mechanical engineering in biology and medicine, and micro/nanoscale science and engineering.

Places like the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT have begun to design educational programs that will meet this growing demand by allowing students to take a regiment of courses that challenge them to gain a thorough understanding of both medicine and engineering.

Not only do programs like the one at MIT produce some incredibly talented engineers, but their research and fellowships are already changing the medical industry and the world. From specialized programs on epidemic evolution and management, to apps that can monitor arrhythmia using smartphone cameras, medical engineering programs are pushing the boundaries of medical technology and changing the world.

At MIT’s Doctoral Program in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics:

  • Participants receive a complete education in classical disciplines of engineering and science. Students are given the independence to choose an area of interest and pursue courses within that discipline.
  • Students become well versed in biomedical science through both preclinical and clinical work. Pathology and pathophysiology are just some of the courses that students participate in before launching into a rigorous, hands-on learning experience. Through this hands-on learning experience, students are educated in clinical care, medical decision making, and how medical technology contributes to modern medicine. All of this experience gives students a unique perspective on how technology contributes to medicine. The program is designed to allow the students to have a hands-onopportunity to understand the potential and constraints technology has in the medical field.
  • A two-stage examination helps ensure that students are qualified to move on and are sufficiently versed in their chosen area of focus. A key part of this examination period is a research proposal that is presented for consideration and must be defended in an oral presentation.
  • Finally, students take on their own project to investigate critical problems at the juncture of modern medicine and technology that will continue to push innovations in healthcare.

Despite the space between engineering and medicine, the two professions are not as far apart as they seem. The human body is an isolated machine; by defining its parameters and understanding its mechanics, doctors diagnose and treat wounds and diseases. That definition sounds very similar to something an engineer might do in their respective field.

With that in mind, other institutions are solving this gap problem by finding ways to encourage engineering students to pursue an MD instead of graduate work in an engineering field.Even if they choose to practice medicine, the critical thinking and problem solving skills learned in an engineering background often prove a critical asset to medical students and doctors.

But Professor Thomas Heldt, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, would argue that these programs are not enough. Both MIT and John Hopkins are highly prestigious and specialized schools that cannot, and do not, produce the quantity of students that today’s modern medical device companies require. Going forward, more schools will need to look to MIT’s example and take up this challenge to ensure that medical device companies have the workforce they need to make progress in medical technology for the benefit of mankind.