E-Health: Our New Endless Frontier

IEEE President Michel discusses engineers’ roles in the health care technology revolution

12 June 2015

In 1945, Vannevar Bush provocatively titled a report to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt “Science, The Endless Frontier.” Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote that the endless frontier that was science would be key to the nation’s health, prosperity, and security in the modern world.

Bush was right.

In 1947, ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, made its debut. That year also saw the birth of the transistor, which transformed electronics. In 1948, IEEE Fellow Claude Shannon developed information theory and set the foundation for modern communications and computing technology.

And that was just the edge of Bush’s endless frontier. The next 15 years would usher in the first solar photovoltaic cell; the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite; the birth of the laser; and the first computer language compiler, among many other milestones.

Technological advances kept building one on another, bringing us to where we are now: in the midst of yet another revolutionary period in engineering. That revolution is e-health, the convergence of the broad scope of the life and health sciences with the all-­encompassing realms of engineering.

While e-health is all that, it is also much more. It is a revolution in analytics, crunching the millions of data points created by sensors monitoring our vibrancy and well-being. It is a revolution in cybersecurity, as we try to ensure that medical data and medical devices are kept safe and secure. It is nanotech biosensors communicating molecular changes rather than electromagnetic signals.

It is also how best to craft responsible public policy for technology and to address the questions that arise with each advance. And e-health offers a thousand more avenues for discovery along a truly endless frontier.

INDEPENDENT LIVING

It is difficult to point to a single topic in e-health that can unify great numbers of these disparate pursuits. Perhaps we can start with ambient assisted living. AAL gained popularity in 2008, when the European Union launched its first initiative to support it. The goal of AAL is to allow people to live longer, healthier lives in their own homes. From that seemingly simple concept has arisen a multitude of applications, monitoring devices, sensors, and innovations, like wearable technology.

In Japan, AAL has become particularly important. According to government surveys, the number of people age 65 and older now exceeds one-fourth of Japan’s population. Meeting the needs of this burgeoning group will be critical in the immediate future.

Work on meeting those needs is already taking place across the breadth of IEEE’s activities. Nearly half the January issue of IEEE Communications Magazine was devoted to AAL and the diverse topics that it intersects, including the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and green energy. An excellent series of articles showcased some of the best work currently being done in AAL.

Throughout this year, the global IEEE community will hold conferences, like HealthCom2015 and IEEE E-Health and Bioengineering, as well as other convocations where topics such as AAL and e-health will be examined in depth. In addition, work on informatics standards is addressing the personal information needs that are a part of an AAL environment. For all that has been accomplished, much must still be done. Fortunately, many within the IEEE global community are focusing their efforts on technology that will benefit our oldest citizens, enabling them to live life on their terms, in an environment that values their independence while helping them maintain optimal health.

MORE WORK AHEAD

For all that has been accomplished,much must still be done. Fortunately, many within the IEEE global community are focusing their efforts on technology that will benefitour oldest citizens, enabling them to live life on their terms, in an environment that values their independence while helping them maintain optimal health.

The discussion of e-health, however, does not begin and end with AAL. In truth, it is difficult for me to even think where a discussion of e-health could “end.” Today, we’re seeing prosthetics and medical devices interfacing ever more seamlessly with the natural biology of the human body. We’re making strides in using DNA as an effective, efficient means of data storage and retrieval. Those born deaf are now hearing for the first time; those with impaired sight can gaze upon their loved ones.

The unparalleled promise that e-health holds for our world is why we, as engineers, pursue our respective passions. In e-health, we have found another endless frontier, one that IEEE, as it has in the past, will explore in depth. I look forward to what we will find.

I know many of you are already doing exceptional work in e-health. Please write to president@ieee.org and tell me what you’re exploring and accomplishing.

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