In the past fifty years engineering has drastically improved our quality of life, especially in the area of our health. Many inventions have been made and a lot of research has been conducted to improve our knowledge of the human body and diseases. As science continues to advance, and technology continues to improve, the future will be bright for healthcare. Engineers and scientists will be needed to make giant leaps of improvement and innovations that directly impact our health.
Our world has advanced dramatically in many ways. Antibiotics and treatments have reduced mortality and improved quality of life for many. One of the great inventions made in 1977 is the MRI or magnetic resonance imaging machine. This machine enables physicians to see inside the body without cutting it open. An MRI can help diagnose cancer, strokes, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, and torn ligaments. MRIs use a superconducting magnet consisting of many coils of wire though which a current of electricity is passed. The strong magnetic field produces a high quality image. Without engineering and innovative thinking, this great machine would never have been created.
Another great engineering success is the use of robots for surgery. Robotic surgery is minimally invasive. One robot used in surgery is called the Da Vinci Si and it is the world’s most advanced surgical robot. The surgeon controls the robot during the surgery in a console located in the operating room. The robot uses miniature instruments and another engineering feat, a small camera. The tiny camera is a high definition 3D camera that guides the surgeon during the surgery. These inventions work together and are helpful and improve quality of life because there is minimal scarring, less trauma on the body, and a faster recovery time.
Engineering has opened doors for many people who are affected by loss of limbs. In the past, many people would be confined to wheelchairs, but today there are options for some. The field of prosthetics continues to improve with engineering advances. Prosthetics today are more than “artificial” limbs. Some actually help the patient “do” something and current research shows exciting promise for bionic body parts in the future. There are even multiple prosthetic limbs for different functions. For example, new materials and technologies allow prosthetics especially for running. Each patient has unique needs and engineers research the best materials and design for the greatest functionality.
Also, materials engineering has created more opportunity for artificial knees and hip replacements. Innovations today make these surgeries commonplace. Several different materials work together inside artificial knees and hips to give the patient a full range of motion. The materials chosen have to be accepted by the body and not seen as invaders so that the immune system does not attack. Also the materials need to be long lasting so the patient does not have to undergo repeated surgeries. Patients today do not have to lose their mobility if they are able to receive artificial knees or hips. Materials engineers and chemical engineers are responsible for these biomedical inventions.
Medical advances by engineers have drastically improved our quality of life over the past fifty years. The MRI, robotic surgery, prosthetic improvement, and orthopedic replacements are just a few examples. Exciting research is taking place currently in multiple aspects of health care. Engineers and scientists are looking at genetics, diseases, our aging population, drugs, and even designing our hospitals to fit our needs. Engineers will continue addressing health needs in the next fifty years as well.
Over the next fifty years, I predict cancer will no longer be a dreaded disease. Currently our cells have lysosomes to digest foreign invaders. They also contain enzymes that can repair DNA. The body already has defenses in place to heal and protect. I believe researchers in this area will develop strategies that will help our healthy cells attack the cancer cells. Perhaps a drug or a method will direct our own lysosomes to attack the cancer cells and digest them. Then, any damaged areas can be repaired by our own enzymes. The body is capable. Engineers will lead the way in “instructing” our own cells to identify the cancer and eliminate it.
I imagine health care control will shift more to the patient with at home inventions created by engineers. For example, parents could use a futuristic machine (similar to an otoscope) to take a picture of the eardrum in a fussy child. This image would download wirelessly to their computer where medical software would confirm or deny an ear infection. If the computer confirmed an ear infection, then the software would electronically notify the pharmacy and the parent could pick up the prescription without ever having to take the sick child to the doctor. The advantage in this process is that the child would not have to leave the house. This eliminates exposure to additional germs at the doctor’s office, and the child would get additional rest at home.
Similarly, I envision software that can determine viral versus bacterial illnesses. A sick person could take a swab of saliva and place it inside a small device connected to their computer. The home computer would run a series of tests to determine if the illness was viral or bacterial. Then, the sick individual would know if they needed medication or just to treat the symptoms. I predict many engineering advances for health care will create affordable, at home diagnostic abilities. This will eliminate the need to leave home, wait in overcrowded doctors’ offices, and exposure to others. This will improve quality of life by freeing up time for both the patient and the doctor.
I also predict more advanced engineering work in the area of regenerating body parts. Genetic research is controversial and ethics need to be respected. I believe there will be advances in this area to help people. For example, if a patient lost a permanent tooth, a new tooth could be grown using their DNA. This would be life changing for burn victims, who could grow new skin using their own DNA. Also, severe cuts could be healed without scarring and surgery could be closed without scars. If a patient loses a kidney, a new one could be created without a donor so there would be no need for antirejection medications. This would save lives as well as improve the quality of life for many.
Engineering is such a broad and exciting field. It changes our world and improves our lives. Looking back over the past fifty years, engineering has created many tools that improve our healthcare. Machines such as the MRI have made diagnoses faster and less invasive. Robots can make smaller precise cuts that humans are not capable of. Mobility is improved by artificial body parts as well as higher functioning prosthesis. Many people are living longer and have a better quality of life due to advances in health influenced by various engineering disciplines.
Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Every life that has been saved by medical advances knows the magic of engineering contributions. I cannot wait to see what the magic of engineering will bring for the medical community over the next fifty years.