“Transforming Healthcare Through Engineering,” the NAE regional symposium held May 3, 2018, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, drew more than 120 attendees from academia and industry and showcased a campus on which transdisciplinary problem-solving is the norm.
Healthcare is a topic that’s top of mind for many Americans. And NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. pointed out that at least three of the academy’s grand challenges for engineering directly relate to healthcare. “It’s clearly a very important topic to engineering, as well as to society,” he said.
It’s not one, however, that can be addressed in a vacuum. The symposium’s speakers, panelists and attendees included experts in such fields as data science, industrial and systems engineering, nursing, radiology and imaging, neural engineering, intelligent healthcare solutions, regenerative medicine, cancer biology, emergency medicine, and healthcare administration, among others.
In her greeting, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank underscored the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration in addressing healthcare challenges. “These are the people who are fundamentally changing the practice of medicine—and along with it, the lives of millions of patients,” she said.
Throughout the symposium, data-empowered healthcare and discovery was a common thread.
The day’s keynote speaker was Patricia Flatley Brennan, director of the National Library of Medicine and interim associate director for data science for the National Institutes of Health. Positioned at the intersection of information processing and health data, the national library takes in and houses massive data and bibliographic repositories—which present myriad opportunities to transform information into discovery. “We are facing a revolution,” she said. “A data-powered health opportunity.”
Engineers could solve many challenges that would accelerate the library’s impact on healthcare, said Brennan, who also is a professor emeritus of industrial and systems engineering and nursing at UW-Madison. She cited such aspects as sustainable data infrastructure; robust information access and dissemination methods; information security and privacy; and automated information collection, curation, integration and storage, among many others. “How do we ensure the information we have is accurate, complete and fulfilling public needs?” she asked. “That’s an engineering challenge.”
In addition to the keynote, the symposium included sessions on smart and connected healthcare, integrating imaging and data, and envisioning the augmented and connected healthcare experience of 2050.
The smart and connected healthcare session underscored the need for including many experts—including patients themselves—in efforts to improve health communication and healthcare delivery. Susan Sheridan, director of patient engagement for the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, and Alan Kaplan, CEO of UW Health, spoke, respectively, from the perspectives of patient family member and health system administrator. Sheridan related her experiences with her newborn son, whose jaundice went undiagnosed and led to a variety of disabilities, and her husband, whose cancerous mass was initially misdiagnosed as benign—the result of a process breakdown that ultimately resulted in his death. Those experiences prompted her to explore the disconnects among health data, healthcare providers and processes, and the individual patient experience.
As CEO of a large academic health system, Kaplan said he takes a global view of a complicated environment—considering in his business decisions everything from the array of traditional, new and unique provider choices available to patients to new technologies, treatments and processes. “How is it more efficient, less expensive, higher quality at a commensurate cost, something that builds loyalty or market share, things that enhance staff satisfaction, things that create new revenue streams,” he said. “But in the end, the patients are the only thing that matters.”
The seminar’s second session focused on the intersection of data and imaging. Precision medicine, said Elizabeth Burnside, is the future of healthcare. “How do we treat patients individually as we enter the era of big data, as well?” she asked.
Deputy executive director of the UW-Madison Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, Burnside talked about imaging as the intermediate between genetics and the environment, pointing to the underlying interaction between the two. She used breast cancer screening as an example: Screening guidelines currently are based primarily on a patient’s age. However, based on an individual’s lifestyle and risk factors, doctors now can use real-time simulation to help patients make more informed screening choices.
Associate director of the Mayo Neural Engineering Laboratories, Kip Ludwig is an expert in neuromodulation—a stimulus-based technology that can generate unprecedented amounts of patient data. In his presentation, Ludwig cited the technology’s opportunity for advancing personalized medicine; however, achieving that goal will require contributions from researchers in artificial intelligence, big data, telemedicine, materials science, computing, neuroscience and many others. “We all need to talk to each other,” he said. “And how do we bridge the gap from something that works in an animal model to a human?”
In the final talk of the session, Rob Nowak discussed advances in image modeling. A professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison, Nowak noted that deep learning can lead to new insights from imaging technologies such as MRI. “A deep neural network can be trained to recognize many different types of images,” he said.
Looking to the future, the symposium’s third session featured presenters from industry and academia. Charlie Alvarez, Foxconn Healthcare and Bioscience vice president for North America, showcased the company’s smart hospital and its connected technologies, while Blake Anson, Cellular Dynamics International global business director of toxicology and safety pharmacology, talked about the ways in which his company is leveraging UW-Madison human stem cell expertise in scaffolding products for regenerative medicine applications such as bone grafts, stents and many others.
Cancer biologist David Beebe, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering, talked about his research, which focuses on the cancer macroenvironment—the components beyond cells (cancer or otherwise) that are active participants in disease. “We’re developing the tools to incorporate that into our models and the way we think about drug discovery and development, and treatment,” said Beebe, who believes this understanding will open a new future of personalized cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Doug Weber, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, provided perspective from his recently completed term as a program manager in biological technologies at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He said devices that capture our health data in real time will enable a move from what he called the “episodic” model of diagnosis and treatment to one that’s more continuous. “The future of healthcare is definitely devices,” he said. “We need those devices to get the data, which is essential for driving decisions and empowering our patients.”
The symposium brought to light the many ways in which engineering already has improved human health and healthcare. However, attendees also agreed there is much more work ahead, particularly given the emergence of vast amounts of data—yet now and in the future, efforts to transform healthcare should be all about the patient.