Against The Grain: 'Without X-rays, we'd be back in the Dark Ages'

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The Independent Online

Clive Beggs is professor of medical technology at the University of Bradford. He argues that medical engineering's life-saving contribution to healthcare is being largely ignored, and that the discipline is suffering as a result.

If you walk into a hospital anywhere in the Western world, you'll see engineering devices all over the place. Patients who are incredibly ill are housed in intensive-care units, kept alive by life-support systems, and cardiologists rely on the signal given out by an electrocardiogram (ECG) to tell whether the heart is behaving normally or abnormally. Complex medical engineering is involved with everything from brain scanners to X-rays, but people just think of them as part of the furniture of a hospital. The same is true of artificial hip joints and pacemakers: all of these are engineered devices.

The problem is that most of these things were developed before medical engineering was officially recognised as a discipline, and few realise the huge importance they have. The general public assumes that doctors and nurses treat people, and that pharmaceutical companies manufacture drugs, but they're just not aware of the role of engineering in healthcare.

Hospital doctors do three things: diagnose, prescribe therapies and sometimes carry out technical procedures. But if you didn't have an ECG to diagnose cardiovascular problems, where would you be? If we didn't have X-rays, it would be like going back to the Dark Ages. These machines make huge differences to people's quality of life, and if you took them away, many more people would die. But as engineering devices, they remain unrecognised.

Doctors use an armoury of tools to treat patients. This is vital to those patients, but individual doctors rarely influence the lives of populations. But medical engineers have the chance to improve the lives of millions – few doctors can do that. Engineers have the opportunity to create and develop new medical devices, which doctors can use to revolutionise the treatment of populations. While the next generation of tools are waiting to be developed, there is a shortage of medical engineers, and we need to raise awareness of the subject so people will enter the profession.

Today, the big medical advances are often not made by clinicians; rather they are developed by scientists and engineers. Medical engineering is a cutting-edge discipline, and it's going to be a big growth area in the 21st century, but as yet the public don't realise this. A lot of school leavers who want to work with science in medicine aren't even aware that the subject exists: many will go into biomedical science instead, even though they might have found medical engineering more fulfilling. We need to publicise medical engineering, so they know how influential and interesting it can be.