A quick online search will produce plenty of articles discussing the benefits of engineers and clinicians working together to use medical technology to solve clinical problems. But that’s only half the story: the real value comes when engineers gain direct experience in the clinical environment.
This is the strategy behind the Clinical Experience Programme (CEP) which brings together post-graduate bioengineers from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) and hospital-based clinicians.
“This one-week programme for early-career researchers puts them into a clinical setting where they can see first-hand how medical devices and digital health technologies are used” says Professor John Windsor, Academic Director of the Surgical and Translational Research (STaR) Centre at the University of Auckland.
“It gives them first-hand experience that neither masters nor PhD students get and it helps spark connections that are critical to delivering better healthcare outcomes.”
Nine researchers spent a week at Waitākere, North Shore and Auckland Hospitals. At the end of the week, they had to present an idea for an innovation, medical device or digital health technology they believed could solve a problem they noticed during the week.
Researchers Vanessa Tang and Peter Tremain were part of the group.
“From both the perspective of a researcher and someone who aspires to build a career in healthcare, the programme was an eye-opening and insightful experience. It provides clinical awareness that cannot be learned from sitting behind the screens. Highly recommend!” Vanessa Tang.
“The Clinical Experience Programme was incredibly valuable in that it provided a first-hand perspective of the NZ healthcare environment and supported building collaborative relationships with clinicians in the sector, both of which I believe are critical, but difficult to attain for engineers/designers working in healthtech.” Peter Tremain.
Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer Dr Brian Robinson also is part of the team. “What we’re doing is giving these researchers a feel for the actual environment. We’re connecting design to people. How usable is a device? How and where might clinicians use it?”
For Robyn Whittaker, Director of Evidence, Research and Clinical Trials Te Whatu Ora, it is the connections. “This is the key driver – connecting engineering students and clinicians in the health service.”
While this was the first time CEP has been run under the new national health system – Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand – the idea of bringing engineers and clinicians isn’t new.
Back in 2012, Professor John Windsor (Surgery) and Associate Professor Bruce Macdonald (Electrical and Computer Engineering) who headed up the Technology for Health Research theme in Engineering were talking. That conversation provided the
catalyst for an initiative to “bridge the massive gap of Grafton Gully, the gap
between Medicine and Engineering, and to find a way to bring these cultures together”.
“It became obvious that engineers wanting to innovate in the health space are severely hampered by the lack of opportunities to understand what happens in health and to regularly interface with clinicians,” Windsor said at the time.
Within a month of that conversation, the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences’ first Engineers in Clinical Residence programme began with a one-week pilot, exposing three engineering students to the clinical work environment.
Today, Windsor describes the opportunity as starting from two different places and ending up in the same place. “An engineer has a big idea but needs to work with a clinician. A clinician has a big problem but needs an engineer to help solve it.”
Windsor talks of “the impressive quality of ABI research, the need to feed into RAP funding, the great need for clinicians and engineers to work together and adding industry to the mix. There’s huge potential to include other groups and hospitals, from GPs to specialists to radiologists.”
This was the first CEP under the new national health system – Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand. That in itself has been of benefit. “It was difficult to develop these sorts of relationships under the old health board structure, but with Te Whatu Ora we’re seeing more innovation and research, more collaboration,” says Robinson.
Whittaker is keen to see the programme expand. “We want to look at running this around New Zealand regularly, maybe once a year. We want to bring engineers and clinicians together and support them with RAP funding to get new relationships up and running.”
The HealthTech Capability Programme is a new nationally focused strategic programme funded by the University of Auckland to help develop and advance New Zealand’s expertise in healthtech research translation. It is underpinned by the MedTech Research Network and the Aotearoa Brain Network and supported by the CMDT partnership.