Electrical Engineers Are Building the Future of Health Care

Assistive robots, advanced imaging machines, and 3D bioprinters certain to transform the industry

5 June 2018

Rapidly advancing technology has put electronic devices at the center of modern health care. The advances are changing the way medical professionals diagnose and treat their patients—and there’s a massive need for skilled electrical engineers to contribute.

Here are some ways technologists are improving health care.

More efficient

The advent of electronic health records has been a major milestone in medicine. In the United States, the percentage of hospitals that use electronic records jumped from 31 percent in 2003 to 99 percent late last year, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Electronic records have helped doctors coordinate care, identify medical risks more effectively, and identify dangerous drug interactions and other problems.

Wearable health monitors are growing more popular, and they can become even more effective and unobtrusive with small, low-power sensors and smart materials. One day, instead of hospital bracelets, RFID tags with nanotechnology could monitor vital signs automatically, including body temperature and heart rate. That would cut down on nurses’ duties, freeing them up for more complex patient care, and patients would not be disturbed as often. And with the advent of the Internet of Things, interconnected devices in a hospital setting, for instance, could monitor patients, collect and transmit data, and help health care providers stay organized. By 2020, an estimated 40 percent of IoT devices will be health care–related.

Robots also might be deployed to assist health care providers. Robotics will play a pivotal role in offering assistance during the projected nursing shortage. As many as 525,000 more nurses will be needed by 2025 in the United States alone. Robots will be key in offering assistance during the shortage and can be used for remote monitoring. Some can offer comfort, like the PARO therapeutic robotic seal, while others, like Softbank’s Pepper, can communicate with patients and perform basic tasks.

DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT

Imaging technologies, including MRI and CT machines, have been crucial to diagnosing patients, and now a new technique is emerging. Electromagnetic acoustic imaging (EMAI) uses long-wavelength RF electromagnetic waves to induce ultrasound emission. EMAI machines are portable, as well as safer and less expensive than MRI and CT machines. They can produce high-quality images and find tumors as tiny as 2 millimeters in diameter.

Advances in nanotechnology could be massively important in health care as time goes on. Nanotech devices might be used to monitor and treat cancer and other devastating diseases at the source. Such technologies are being developed to detect and fight circulating tumor cells and treat brain and spinal-cord damage after someone suffers a stroke.

Robotics

Some people fear that robots are one day going to replace doctors. The reality is that robots are being developed for healthcare at the moment simply assist and enhance, they’re not intended to replace our healthcare providers.

How so? Well, currently there is a physician shortage as the number of active doctors is decreasing for the first time in over two decades.

Richard Biehl, instructor and program director of Healthcare Systems Engineering at the University of Central Florida, commented on this shortage in a recent article published on The Hill noting that not only are we having a shortage of physicians, but that they’re also, “More people needing physician care and industry attrition means the supply of physicians isn’t keeping pace with the demand.”

Biehl also adds that, “The current administration’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could end health coverage for millions of Americans, which would worsen the provided shortage crisis.”

With a decreasing number of physicians, robots can assist healthcare providers in a number of ways, such as remote monitoring and care of patients, automation, or even act as exoskeletons for certain patients.

BIOPRINTING

An important technology in the manufacturing industry, 3D printing holds even greater promise in medicine. Bioprinting uses a patient’s own cells and creates new tissue by layering the material to build the structure of an organ. Computer models are made to guide the printer—models that can be made from a patient’s own CT scans.

Researchers have discovered a few different ways to print biological tissue, but all bioprinting starts with bioink—a combination of a patient’s stem cells or the cells of a specific organ—and a microgel that provides nutrients. Once the tissues have been layered to print a structure according to the computer model, the model grows and matures in an incubator, often self-replicating and self-assembling into a more complex organ. Bioprinting is more predictable than growing tissue in a lab from patients’ cells because researchers have more control over the shape of the tissue.

Although it’s not yet possible to print full organs, researchers are working to overcome the challenges and inefficiencies of current systems. Some companies have shown promising results, including a functioning thyroid and 3D-printed liver tissue.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More