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Physician Engineers: A New Breed of Professionals

on Wed, 09/28/2016 - 14:53

By Marilynn Larkin

What do point-of-care diagnostics, organs-on-chips and pacemakers have in common? They’re all products of interdisciplinary collaborations, and team members usually include physicians, who provide input on what’s needed in the clinic, and engineers, who help design and develop the devices. Recognizing the power of such collaborations, the IEEE launched the Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine a few years back “to support the movement of biotechnological innovations from idea to clinical trials and commercialization.”

Now, Texas A&M University in College Station  and Houston Methodist Hospital are taking the collaborations one step further by launching the Texas A&M University Engineering Medicine School (EnMed). Set to enroll its first 50 students in fall 2017, EnMed—described as “an integrated educational and research medical school with a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship”—will offer a full MD program and degree along with a Masters or PhD in engineering. All applicants are required to have at least a bachelors degree in engineering on entry, according to Texas A&M Engineering Vice Chancellor and Dean of Engineering Dr. M. Katherine Banks, who drove the initial concept.

This educational “paradigm shift” will require not only biomedical engineers, but also electrical, chemical, computer and mechanical engineers—disciplines that have not been brought into the medical field at the same rate as biomedical engineers, Dr. Banks said. “In a physician visit today, the amount of technology used for both diagnosis and treatment is striking,” she observed. “It’s very clear to me that the future of medicine depends on the development of new technology—and that requires many different kinds of engineers.”

“We have three amazingly strong entities—Texas A&M Engineering, the College of Medicine, and Houston Methodist Research Institute—coming together to create a new type of professional we’re calling ‘physicianeers.’”

Bringing those institutions together wasn’t easy, Banks acknowledged. “Not many colleges of medicine are open to the concept of an integrated educational experience to move ideas more quickly from concept to the marketplace.”

Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute and executive vice president of Houston Methodist, is championing the program on the medical side. An engineer by training, Dr. Ferrari noted that “20 years ago, it wasn’t easy to find a medical student with an engineering background. Ten years ago, maybe 10% of medical students had that training. Today, we’re looking at 30% or more.”

Students enrolled in the new program will receive the same medical training they would receive at any other medical school, according to Dr. Ferrari. However, “the curriculum will be designed to align certain areas of clinical medicine with the corresponding areas of engineering technology.” For example, synergies between medicine and engineering enabled the development of stents, ventricular devices and defibrillators for cardiovascular medicine; imaging technologies such as PET and MRI to facilitate the study of neurological conditions; biomaterials for hip and knee replacements; and numerous innovations, including novel drug delivery systems and nanotechnologies to treat cancer.

“This can’t be done in a conventional medical school because medical students would have to learn a tremendous amount of engineering in order to delve deeply into these areas. But if they come in with that knowledge, we can generate a new class of clinicians who can also be active as researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs,” he explained.

That said, even today, increasing evidence of the intermingling of engineering and medicine is evident at the engineering school. According to biomedical librarian Bruce Neville, graduate students are now required to do systematic literature reviews as part of their training—a very common format in the medical literature.

Engineering Village provides 12 structured databases with information that spans many engineering disciplines, including more than a million articles on biomedical topics and nearly five thousand IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine articles indexed within Compendex. According to the U.S. News and World Report, 95% of the Top 25 Engineering Schools in the United States subscribe to Engineering Village.

He assisted with one such project that dealt with software improvements for patient portals in hospitals.

“The researcher had to explain the term ‘patient portal’ to me,” Neville said. “I learned that they’re the online medical records that health providers use to track everything about a patient during care. So, this project involved, at a minimum, a medical database, a computing database, and a business database.”

“The medical database also had the complication that we humans have something in our liver called the hepatic portal system that creates all kinds of false hits that a well-structured database with controlled vocabulary can help eliminate, while a machine-generated database cannot,” Neville concluded (also see sidebar, Engineering Village Resources).

While the full impact of  EnMed won’t be known for at least a few years, the idea of literally embodying both disciplines in a single person is compelling. As Dr. Ferrari said, “We’re acknowledging the trend and making a very strong, radical affirmation of the value of joining forces. It’s all very exciting. I’ve been waiting for this all my life.”

Dr. M. Katherine Banks
Engineering Vice Chancellor and Dean of Engineering, Texas A&M

Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., President and CEO, Houston Methodist Research Institute and executive vice president of Houston Methodist