Dr Finlay’s Case: Interview with biomedical engineering expert Dr Patrick Finlay

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Engineering and medicine are increasingly indivisible, with biomedical engineering being at the forefront of this shift. Paul Fanning talks to one of the discipline's leading advocates.

Biomedical engineering may not be a term that is overly familiar to many, but Dr Patrick Finlay, chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' Biomedical Engineering Association is aiming to change that and is happy to offer a definition of the discipline. "Biomedical engineering is where engineering meets the human body," he says.

This definition covers an awful lot of ground, though, as Finlay is keen to point out. "It applies to sports, it applies to ergonomics, it applies to assisted living, healthcare – any number of areas." Equally, he believes, there may be many people working in biomedical engineering who may not even realise that that is what they are doing.

He says: "So an engineer designing a wheelchair, for instance, may just think of himself as a mechanical engineer, but in fact he's taking into account the pressures and forces that the human body can take and exert. He's dealing with how a person with limited mobility can get in and out of the wheelchair – so he's creating a bridge between engineering and the human body."

Finlay's interest in the area stems from a very personal experience. He takes up the story: "My interest in biomedical engineering began 29 years ago when my first son was born. I was in the delivery suite and the midwife announced that it was going to be a forceps delivery. As a young engineer, I thought this was an interesting prospect and I imagined a carefully-designed, pliant cradle that would grasp the baby's head firmly, but gently. But then the midwife appeared with what appeared to be a pair of salad tongs. If you go to Google Images now and put in 'delivery forceps', you'll see the same thing. And I thought: "Really, an undergraduate could do better than this – it's appalling'. From that moment I knew that medical engineering was an area that would attract me."

Finlay's particular specialism is in robotics and in the 1980s, he got to lead the UK's medical robotics programme. He says: "What I learnt from that was that in the very early stages of a new technology, bringing together all the various actors from universities, medicine and industry to work together in teams to solve problems is hugely productive. By the end of that process the UK really was the lead country in the world in medical robotics – purely because we managed to get that critical mass together."

And true enough, when he has brought the various partners together, he has found the results extremely positive. "I've run a number of brainstorming sessions between clinicians and engineers," he says. "The clinicians describe the problem and the engineers come up with solutions. These sessions always end the same way, with the clinicians saying: 'I had no idea you could do that!' and the engineers saying: 'I had no idea you needed it!'"

One reason for Dr Finlay's urgency in promoting this aspect of engineering is the fact that technology is playing an ever-greater part in all forms of medicine. Indeed, he makes the case that in certain areas, it is now as important – if not more so – than the skill of the medical professionals themselves.

"I've worked a great deal on neurosurgical robotics," he says, "And it's fair to say that most neurosurgery now wouldn't be possible without biomedical engineering. It relies on advanced medical imaging techniques, on robotics, micro-instrumentation and sensing . And the relative importance of medical skill and biomedical technology is very finely balanced, but more and more medical processes are becoming reliant on engineering."

There are obstacles to the promotion of the discipline, however, starting at the academic level. Says Finlay: "We graduate 200 students a year in biomedical engineering, although that number's going up. But, until very recently, graduates in this discipline had to choose to call themselves mechanical or electrical or electronic in order to join one of these traditional institutions. In fact, they're all these things and more."

Funding for biomedical research also suffers from similar problems of fragmentation. "The funding in universities provided by research council does not recognise biomedical engineering as a category," says Finlay. "This leads to the trap whereby if you want to apply for funding in one area, you have to apply to one research council and for another part you need to apply to another. And that's ultimately not practical. Unifying those things would be a massive step forward."

For all this, however, Dr Finlay remains positive, saying: "It's an immense field and it's pleasing that the UK has a real lead in this field. We are second only to the US in biomedical technology. As an industry, it's worth £16bn per year and is a net exporter for the country. It's grown by 50% since 2009, but is only 5% of the UK's output and we could do so much better."

Biography
In addition to his role with the Biomedical Engineering Association, Dr Finlay is the founder of MediMaton, a private UK company formed in 2005 to promote the development of medical robotics. MediMaton arose as a result of work done by Patrick Finlay in the 1980s and '90s as project manager of the Medical Robotics initiative of the International Advanced Robotics Programme.

MediMaton offers a consultancy resource to medical robotics companies to encourage new applications of medical robotics. In recent years several European medical robotics companies have been founded with the assistance of MediMaton.

MediMaton also participates in national and international collaborative research programmes, either as a partner in its own right or as a subcontractor or consultant to another partner.


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