The mobile phone could play a key role in the healthcare of the future as engineers and clinicians work closely together to deliver innovations in technology and in the provision of healthcare, a Royal Academy of Engineering conference was told this week (19 June).

Visions of future healthcare, robotic surgery, new kinds of sensing and monitoring equipment and procedures that will include “re-growing” body parts were part of a wide-ranging Academy debate on Innovation in Medical Technologies. The conference attracted a lively audience of engineers, medical practitioners, academics and finance providers.

The potential of the mobile phone for reshaping the delivery of healthcare was explored in terms of its use with low-cost sensors for diagnosis and remote monitoring of patients exemplifies many of them. In parts of the world where medical provision is lacking, mobile phones can provide core infrastructure for medical services.

But even in countries such as the UK, they have the potential, said Dr Chris Elliott FREng, “to make a qualitative change to the way that people manage their health”. Dr Elliott, an aerospace and defence engineer who is also a qualified barrister, is now part of a small Swiss company developing sensors that could put a blood pressure monitor inside every mobile phone. “If we can make these things for just a few dollars, it will encourage people to think of themselves as consumers rather than patients,” he said. “The next generation may well see medicine as a service, like banking or travel.”

The prospect of individuals diagnosing themselves is viewed with alarm by some. The conference keynote speaker, Professor Lionel Tarassenko CBE FREng FMedSci of the University of Oxford, one of the pioneers of biomedical engineering in the UK, who chairs the Academy’s Panel for Biomedical Engineering. He said: “There is a danger that the people who do not need to self-monitor do so, and that the very people who should self-monitor do not. Engineers need to work with healthcare professionals to ensure that these technologies are used to provide useful information rather than noisy data. ”

But Professor Tarassenko thought small companies like Dr Elliott’s were now “the major route to disruptive technological innovation in medical devices” and that the barriers between engineers and the clinical professions are coming down. “Innovation in medical devices is now very much a multi-disciplinary enterprise involving academics, the healthcare professions, patients, industry and the regulators,” he said.

The UK has a thriving medical device industry, with a turnover of £16 billion last year and employing 70,000 people. “We have very active small and medium-sized companies and a great pipeline of innovation from UK universities,” Professor Tarassenko said.

Other speakers pointed to specific advantages that the UK has in medical device development:

  • In contrast to fragmented health systems in countries such as the US, the UK’s National Health Service can provide a uniform database of anonymised patient data, which can make clinical trials on new devices simpler to administer here, speeding product development;
  • UK and European medical device regulations, based in CE Marking, provide clearer and faster routes to commercialisation of safe new devices than US systems, which could make development here attractive to venture capital;
  • The UK has a strong track-record in technology innovation, with concepts such as computerised tomography and magnetic resonance imaging invented in the UK. Although we did not exploit these technologies commercially, the UK is now in a much better position to translate medical technology innovation from the lab to the marketplace.

Notes for editors

  1. Innovation in Medical Devices is the fourth in a series of “Innovation in…” conferences run by the Royal Academy of Engineering exploring the roots of modern innovation in important business and industrial sectors. Previous conferences have covered innovation in construction, in business systems, and in the automotive sector. A fifth conference on Innovation in Materials is scheduled for November.
  2. The Academy will publish a report on the conference in due course, outlining the technology and market drivers in medical device and surgical innovation.
  3. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

For more information please contact: Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton