2 November 2022
Technological advances and their integration into healthcare have been a great driving force between making healthcare more patient-centred, says dr. Metin Akay, who has played a pioneer role in creating the medical engineering course. We have chatted with one of the main presenters of the first International Healthcare Engineering Innovation Conference in Pécs about exciting developments like brain chips used for treating brain tumours, and a non-invasive device used to diagnose blockages of the coronary arteries.
written by Miklós Stemmler
Dr. Metin Akay is one of the most influential figures of the rapidly developing field of healthcare engineering. The Turkish researcher-developer has started to deal with the then very new field in the eighties; he authored multiple books and founded the Healthcare Engineering Department of the University of Houston. He is also chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (IEEE EMBS), the worldwide organisation connecting healthcare engineers.
“Technology and mechanical developments have certainly resulted in great improvement in healthcare in the last decades, and I hope that they will play an important role in decreasing the costs of treatment as well. In the past period, entrepreneurship is starting to play a larger role in education, and also the viewpoint that it can bring economical development and new workplaces” – summarised the professor the growing role of technological innovation in healthcare. He also believes that these developments have also contributed to making healthcare more patient-centred. “The developments of the past years have created incredible opportunities. The patient is able to administer important health data themselves, and with making equipment portable and cheaper, many expensive and intrusive hospital examinations can be changed.”
Metin Akay warns that for the successful integration of the past two decades of development in technology and especially IT into healthcare requires the unified implementation of multiple viewpoints. “Healthcare technology innovations needs to be practical, cost-efficient, scalable and most of all readily available in order for them to become efficient equipment”. The biggest opportunity for healthcare engineers – which is at the same the a challenge – is the unprecedented amount of data thanks to the development of IT. This can give a huge boost to personalised treatments, but handling, safe storage and transmission of data needs new solutions.
According to the professor who played a significant role in establishing the modern healthcare engineering course, the field itself has undergone a large transformation as well. While at the time he started his practice, there was almost only natural science and mechanic knowledge, now this is supplemented with the economic and entrepreneurial knowledge needed for successful innovation. The relationship between healthcare engineers and doctors has changed, and now there is a lot more partnership in trying to solve challenges in healthcare.
Metin Akay and his colleagues are working on important developments even now. Prevention medicine aims to provide personalised treatment to patients, for which an example is the “brain chip”, promising to revolutionise the treatment of glioblastoma, a highly aggressive and most dangerous brain tumour. “Regarding glioblastomas, the biggest problem is the quick course of the disease that does not allow for testing which chemotherapy type a patient reacts best to. We have developed the brain chip to solve this problem: we put a tissue sample of the patient in it, and we expose the tumour cells to various substances and their combinations via the microvalves of the chip. This method can shorten the time spent looking for the ideal treatment significantly, and by placing the samples in animals, we can also prove the efficacy of the treatment in vivo” – explains the head of department of the University of Houston.
Another one of their research projects is the perfect example of how smart, innovative solutions can make healthcare simpler and more cost-efficient. Coronary artery stenosis and blockage, and the heart diseases they cause are the leading causes of death worldwide. Diagnosing stenosis and its extent is traditionally difficult and requires long examinations, but the professor and his colleagues have developed a device that just has to placed on the patient’s chest. The device works on the principle that the acoustics of the heartbeats change if there is stenosis present, since the blood flows differently in veins narrowed by deposits. The simplicity and easy usage of the device makes it usable for screening as well.
Metin Akay thinks that the next big challenge will be reducing costs in the ever more expensive healthcare. “We have a lot of data and equipment at our hands, and the next step is finding out how to make them the most cost-effective, and how to reduce the costs of treatment by using them. This could be a classical case of two birds one stone, if we do it right: by using the data and equipment available we increase the quality of care and reduce its costs.”
Metin Akay and the IEEE EMBS he leads took a leading role in organising the first Pécs Healthcare Engineer Innovation Conference, and the professor thinks the event’s unique nature was created by the diversity of the audience. “Many medical students and doctors took part in the presentations, and I was honoured to have the dean of the Pécs Medical School in the audience of my lecture. This was different from the usual conferences where there are only engineers and IT experts. Moreover, the industry was also present, many companies held presentations. The meeting of technical experts, clinicians and the healthcare industry was quite special. I believe this is the direction we need to keep going, and I will do everything I can do ensure this conference will be followed by others, where the presenters will include clinical and industrial leaders in a higher number.”
Creating tradition with a conference of world-class presenters
Dr. Péter Maróti, professional head of the UP 3D Printing and Visualisation Centre believes that the first International Healthcare Engineer Innovation Conference was a logical continuation of the previous 3D conferences in Pécs, that also brought in renown presenters. “The project of the UP 3D was born as a university initiative, and medical-engineering fields started getting more emphasis in the past few years. Therefore it seemed logical to organise an event focusing on this, and it was naturally important that the healthcare engineering course started in the meantime, and this event was a great opportunity for students – and for us – to meet world-class researchers and developers” – said Péter Maróti.
The diversity highlighted by Metin Akay is not a coincidence. “It was important for us to have both sides of the medical-engineering interdisciplinary field represented, since continuous cooperation is the key to successful work. Moreover, this has a serious tradition in Pécs, since the Clinical Centre has hosted multiple successful medical-engineering cooperations, and there is now a platform ensuring successful cooperation as well” – added dr. Luca Tóth, the main organiser of the event.
Based on feedback, the conference was definitely a success, and the organisers are already planning the continuation. They believe that increasing visibility and expanding the number of participants is the where they have the most to do. “There were Hungarian partner universities present this year, and we would like to have participants from even more places. We also think including students is very important, we would like to organise programs for them too. We would like to expand the number of companies present, hoping that more spin off enterprises start from our university in the next few years. All in all, the entire conference was a huge experience for us, since there were experts and researchers from Zürich, Houston and other parts of the world who we would not have had the chance to meet and learn from otherwise” – added Luca Tóth.