Engineering Medical School Programs Launch to Spur Health Care Innovations

University of Illinois and Texas A&M asking students to prototype ideas to improve medical devices

18 July 2018

Medical students are trained to diagnose diseases, but they often don’t understand how technology could help them do their job better. And engineering students don’t have enough knowledge about the medical field to recognize what devices physicians could use. That’s why two universities have introduced programs to teach engineering to medical students.

The Carle Illinois College of Medicine, in Champaign, welcomes its first class of students this month. The four-year medical school is a partnership between the University of Illinois and the Carle Health System. Graduates will be board-certified physicians.

Although Carle recruited students with degrees in computer engineering, coding, and data sciences, there is no preferred major. Applicants have to complete a medical college admission test. More than 1,000 students applied for the 32 slots.

Each course was designed by a scientist, a clinical scientist, and an engineer. Every week students will make their hospital rounds accompanied by engineering and clinical faculty. While doing so, they’ll be required to identify processes they believe need to be improved. As their final project, they will develop a prototype, according to a Chicago Tribune article.

Although other medical schools have engineering tracks or offer dual-degree programs, Carle is the first to make technology and engineering principles the foundation for a program, says Dr. King Li, dean of the new medical school.

Texas A&M University’s engineering medicine school, EnMed, began a pilot semester in September at Houston Methodist Hospital. Its curriculum focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship. Graduates earn an M.D. degree and a master’s in engineering. The first class is due to matriculate next July.

Dr. Edward Livingston, an IEEE member and deputy editor of JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, told The Institute he thinks such programs will accelerate changes in clinical research. His son participated in EnMed’s pilot semester.

Livingston is a member of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and a professor of surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine. While at Southwestern he encourages young physicians to do research in engineering.

“Clinicians tend to be very focused on the basic science disciplines such as physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry,” he says. “They don’t understand what engineering can do for them and can’t even imagine what the possibilities are. There’s this enormous separation between engineers and clinicians. These programs will help overcome that.”

One of the problems with current biomedical engineering programs, he says, is that they’re based in engineering, not medicine.

 “Engineers are very good at taking a set of requirements and saying, ‘Okay, this is what you need. We’ll build it,’ but they don’t know what doctors need,” he says. “When doctors talk to them, engineers tend not to understand what they’re talking about. It’s a very different skill set to be a physician than an engineer. I think anything that can be done to foster more interaction between the two fields is fantastic.”

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