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Updated: September 14, 2010 16:02 IST

Bio-medical engineering must focus on unmet clinical needs: expert

Ramya Kannan
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Lionel Tarassenko, Chair in Electrical Engineering, Oxford University. Photo: R. Ragu
Lionel Tarassenko, Chair in Electrical Engineering, Oxford University. Photo: R. Ragu

Bio-medical engineering, which is the application of engineering technology to medicine, has to focus on “unmet clinical need,” says Lionel Tarassenko, Chair in Electrical Engineering, Oxford University.

In India over the last couple of weeks, to examine areas of collaboration with Indian institutions, Prof. Tarassenko is trying to encourage engineers to work on key medical issues. “As an engineer you may think you are researching on the most important health care problem, but if you are not working with doctors, you won't know what is needed. We need to devote our efforts. There is no point reinventing something that already works well in medicine. We must solve problems that are still outstanding in healthcare.”

Prof. Tarassenko goes on to add: “The fact is that some engineers have the idea that unless it is pure theoretical research, it is not worth doing. I was able to show that if you do research on health care problems, it can send you back to developing new theories.” This way, anyone researching in the area of bio-medical sciences has two advantages: the research will benefit patients and it can lead to solving of major theoretical problems.

His work on mobile phones for healthcare was awarded the E-Health 2005 Innovation Award for “best device to empower patients.” He speaks at length about using an everyday-tool – the mobile phone - for people to manage their own conditions, and avoid expensive visits to the doctor or hospitalisation.

With at least 21 patents to his credit, Prof. Tarassenko, continues to stress on the importance of mHealth in managing chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, or asthma. The mobile is a great tool to achieve control among young diabetics if a programme is tailored to suit their skills.

He is also involved in building smart prompting systems to bring the doctor into the loop as early as possible before a patient (admitted into a hospital) deteriorates or dies, in order that hospital deaths can be avoided. In the 25 years, since he finished his Ph.D, there has been a complete change in the attitude of the medical profession to engineers/physicists, Prof. Tarassenko says. “Then I was a technician, turning the knobs up and down. Now we are equal partners sitting at the same high table as doctors.” The primary reason for this, he reasons, is the immense benefits medical imaging or equipments invented by physicists and engineers have contributed to medical treatment and diagnosis.

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