Licence to Cure

April 14, 2011

These are interesting times to be an engineer. For the past 3 years I have been working as a researcher in the Bioengineering and Telemedicine Group at Technical University of Madrid (GBT-UPM), where I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a number of exciting projects. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this group, because every day I get to work with extremely talented people who are just as passionate about their work as I am.

I’ve always found the engineering occupation to be very rewarding. It is an engineer’s privilege, and his duty[1. DISCLAIMER: The male form “his” is used throughout this article simply as a convenience. There are plenty of female engineers out there, you know.], to summon every ounce of human knowledge and use it to build something that will actually improve people’s lives. In a way, biomedical engineering is perhaps one of the truest engineering disciplines: it lies very close to the core values of our profession.

As biomedical engineers, we don’t cure patients; our goal is to use technology to create the kind of tools that will help doctors do their job better. We analyze their problems, and imagine new ways to solve them. We make sure they have exactly what they need, exactly when they need it, to the best of our ability. This is an exciting and demanding challenge that constantly requires us to push the state of the art and find new ways to innovate. We are the Q Branch) at the service of a medical James Bond, only instead of jet packs and explosive pens, we come up with artificial pancreases and virtual reality surgical simulators.

And it’s not only doctors that we get to help. Our job has a huge impact on their patients' lives, too. We build systems and devices that allow people struck by accident or disease to regain control of their lives. We offer them a chance to be self-sufficient again, to overcome their challenges, and move on.

These are some of the reasons why I love doing what I do. Also, they resonate very well with the purpose of Analog Senses. As a certain somebody already said, I have always felt that technology alone is not enough. I suppose this is also in no small part why I love Apple. For them, technology is at its best when connected with the liberal arts. In my job, it is at the service of the medical sciences. For Analog Senses, it should be a way to enhance human interaction, while still keeping it human.

If you were to casually browse through the archives, you would notice that most of the posts and links here reference Apple. This is not intentional, I assure you, but it isn’t coincidental, either. It is only a by-product of a simple reality: when it comes to technology and humans, Apple gets it, most others don’t.

And so, it is with great excitement that we take on the new challenge of iOS development in the group, specifically targeting the iPad. Analyzing the current technological landscape, it’s easy to see why. Not only is it a great device for normal people to use (some might disagree, but that’s a whole other article), but its potential in the medical field is unmatched. The form-factor, the battery life, the connectivity features, the robust aluminum shell… all these things make the iPad the ultimate medical gadget. Even though its official adoption by clinical centers is still in the early stages, many doctors around the world are personally embracing it as part of their everyday equipment:

Other devices available at the hospital — computers on wheels, static workstations, laptops, tablet computers — fall short in critical ways, said Feldman and Dr. Larry Nathanson, an emergency physician and fellow iPad evangelist. Size, weight, and battery life get in the way, they said, and nothing can be flipped around and used at the bedside like an iPad.

The iPad’s hardware is ideally suited to be a doctor’s constant companion, but its greatest strength is undoubtedly the software. iOS is a solid foundation to build upon, and the official SDK allows us to turn the iPad into a swiss army knife of medical applications. We can build an app that allows doctors to check the electronic health records of their patients with just a few taps. We can enable them to monitor their progress and adjust their treatment in real-time. We can help them be closer to their patients, so that they’re able to guide and educate them through recovery much more efficiently, eliminating the need to be physically at their side, but also letting them know that they are never alone.

And while doctors can benefit greatly from using an iPad, the advantages for patients are even more impressive. From a doctor’s standpoint, it is a great tool to increase efficiency, but for patients it can actually be the device they use to receive their treatment.

A perfect example of this situation is the telerehabilitation field, where our group has considerable experience. Thanks to technology, patients are able to train and recover from traumatic brain injury or stroke, from the comfort of their own homes. By creating simple rehabilitation exercises, clinically designed to target and engage their cognitive functions, we can help them regain as much of their lost capacity as possible. This is not only about managing resources and cutting costs, but about delivering a more personalized treatment and ensuring continuity of care, two of the critical aspects of neuro-rehabilitation.

Technology has made all of this possible, and the iPad is the perfect instrument to take it one step further. It fits very well into a patient’s home, eliminating all the clutter and the technical difficulties commonly associated with computers (not to mention that these are people affected by cognitive impairment). Instead, the clean, intuitive interface of the iPad allows them to focus more easily on the task at hand. When technology becomes human, it can really make a difference.

For all the talk and speculation about the iPad’s usefulness, it has been a runaway success. In less than a year, it has changed the way we interact with computers, forever. And it will change the way medical devices are conceived, too. What’s most fascinating is that its potential remains largely untapped. We are only beginning to understand the possibilities of such a device, and people are coming up with amazing new applications every day. From an engineering perspective, as we embark on this new challenge, I’m incredibly excited about the future.

The reason I get up and go to work every day is not just to tinker with XCode, but to build something that will change people’s lives for the better. That’s deeply engraved in my DNA, and I cannot think of a better way to do it. As we go back to the lab and start planning our next step, I can’t help but play a scene in my mind, wherein a white-coated figure greets us, and we say:

Morning, Dr. Bond. Here's your new iPad. Complete, of course, with all the usual refinements.

007 has Q. Doctors have us. And now, we have the iPad. Together, villains don’t stand a chance.