An unhealthy situation

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

The recent report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers entitled 'Biomedical engineering: advancing UK healthcare' makes a number of interesting points about the future role of engineers in medicine.

Among the report's recommendations was the call for the introduction of a Chief Biomedical Engineer to be appointed in every NHS trust to take responsibility for the equipment and systems in its hospitals. To be honest, perhaps the most arresting thing about this call (to my mind at least) was the realisation that such a post did not already exist.

Highly complex and sophisticated technology is everywhere in healthcare and that trend is not likely to reverse any time soon. The idea that there is often not a qualified person on hand to ensure its efficacy is genuinely alarming.

And yet the figures would seem to suggest this is the case. According to the report, 13,642 incidents relating to faulty medical equipment were reported in 2013 to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); leading to 309 deaths and 4,955 people sustaining serious injury.

These incidents vary from faulty pacemakers to faulty equipment like CT or MRI scanners used to diagnose patients. This equipment, or its unavailability, is also one of the major causes of cancelled operations.

Given this, it boggles the mind that engineers are not a mandatory and integral part of hospital trusts already. However, it is perhaps indicative of a wider problem that they are not.

My contention would be that the problem is that the term 'engineer' is not sufficiently widely understood for non-engineers to be able to ascribe certain responsibilities to them. Thus, when it comes to the planning, procurement, use and maintenance of high-value equipment, the idea that a highly-qualified engineer should be responsible for these things may not immediately occur. The simple reason being that the role of the engineer – his or her areas of expertise – is not clearly understood.

Certainly it would seem obvious that engineers should have a senior role in modern healthcare. What seems less obvious, though, is why anyone should need to make that argument in the first place.

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