The challenge that lies ahead

There are some areas of innovation in which each and every one of us has a stake. Medical technology is one of them, because no other area of engineering endeavour sets out to make the quality of our lives better.

There are some areas of innovation in which each and every one of us has a stake. Medical technology is one of them, because no other area of engineering endeavour sets out to save and prolong lives, and make the quality of our lives better.

The huge significance of healthcare technology made it the natural choice to be the first sector to be covered in The Engineer‘s ‘Future of…’ series. During 2008 we will be producing five themed editions providing in-depth coverage of critical areas of engineering technology, devoting a significant portion of the magazine to each of these exciting sectors.

Healthcare technology presents special opportunities and unusual challenges. The potential is readily apparent from the range of innovations under test around the NHS, which we examine in our main feature. These advances could genuinely revolutionise the way medicine is practised — for example, by making some surgical procedures completely non-invasive through the use of ultrasound. Indeed, whether it is in the field of surgery, diagnosis, patient monitoring or infection control, technology is bringing incredible medical advances tantalisingly within reach.

And let’s not forget that as well as its obvious contribution to the greater good of humanity, innovation in the medical arena is a tremendous business opportunity for the engineers and companies who achieve these breakthroughs.

The challenges are also formidable, however. Every victory in the battle against disease and disability is hard won, requiring years of development in a market that — quite understandably — sets its standards of regulation and assessment higher than most.

Alongside the sheer technical difficulties, there is another inevitable sticking point — money. A breakthrough in medical technology may produce stunning results in the particular hospital where it was developed. Soon the word will spread, via word of mouth and the media. Before long patients in neighbouring areas will be begging their GPs to get them on the waiting list for the ‘miracle device’ that saved the life of ‘the lady in the newspaper’.

Eventually the clamour will be nationwide, with taxpayers across the UK demanding to know why their treatment is still in what seems like the Dark Ages, while the same newspapers that hailed the new technology just a few months earlier begin muttering darkly about a ‘postcode lottery’.

That then is the challenge — not simply what medical technology can achieve, but how much of it we can afford and where the limited resources of the NHS should be concentrated.

In the light of this, there is a heavy responsibility indeed on the shoulders of Prof Ara Darzi, the distinguished surgeon given a ministerial role by Gordon Brown in a bid to tackle these challenges.

Darzi is the subject of our interview, which can be read here. Reassuringly, in this case the government has hired a genuine insider to do its thinking on health. Darzi has been involved in some of the biggest advances in robotic surgery seen over the last few decades, and as such should know the value of engineering innovation better than anyone.

We should all hope that Darzi, the government and the NHS can help technology fulfil its potential in healthcare. For once, it really is a matter of life or death.

Andrew Lee, editor