Healthcare Systems Engineering

This is the second of two blogs about working as an engineer. Direct engineering technical skills can help in many areas of healthcare for example, in clinical engineering roles such as those in nuclear medicine and in medical physics treating cancer patients , in bio-mechanics, in diagnostic equipment, healthcare building design and informatics.  These clinical engineering areas are terribly important and so too the industrial engineering skills of systems thinking, supply chain management, human factors, customer process design, project and change management, working with staff and customers (aka patients) and commercial awareness are also valuable particularly in operations management and safety and quality improvement.  (Safety was rarely mentioned though when I first started working in the NHS in the mid-2000s, this is in stark contrast to my first day at ICI when safety and safety cultures were the first things discussed and drummed into me, with frightening videos of Flixborough and Piper Alpha and all agendas for any meeting had safety as the first agenda item).

When I joined the NHS, Engineering skills like these in healthcare were sought after, the NHS Modernisation Agency had just disbanded and NHS Trusts were seeking people who could help them to improve, and these skills are still sought, what better than a profession whose mission is to engineer a better world – though perhaps these skills are valued differently in the NHS, both socially and economically than in the private sector and often not seen part of the core of industrial engineering.

There are a few more engineers in the NHS now (or closely associated areas e.g. research) that I know of, I can think of about 22 (!!) doing I think  great work (see this blog as an example from Bruce Gray).  This 22-ish, includes some clinicians who have retrained, or completed the innovative Osprey Programme run by Dr Kate Silvester, an ophthalmologist and engineer, and I am sure there are more engineers that I don’t know of, a tiny group though, in an NHS dominated by clinical professional groups.  Quite a few work in medical physics or facilities and estates roles, but most of us, that I know of, are in quality and operational improvement or operations management roles.  The NHS would benefit from many more in my honest, yet definitely biased opinion!  And it is a great and really rewarding job.

In the USA, there are networks such as the American Society for Healthcare Engineers  and the Institute of Industrial Engineers which meets once per year and shares war stories and learning providing support and connection, (see link for next years conference in Houston, Texas).  Reports have been written for the White House no less, about for the role of engineers in healthcare and the need for more!  We are not yet at that point in the UK.  The IET (my professional institution) whilst having a network for healthcare technologies,  to my knowledge, it does not yet have a professional network for those of us who are working in the area of clinical systems and healthcare engineering, making continuing professional development challenging and in the future, potentially meaning revalidation (should it become mandatory) would be largely impossible.

I feel there is now a growing sense of the potential of healthcare engineering to help healthcare to both redesign and improve in order to tackle the triple pressures of increasing demand, increasing customer/patient requirements for quality and reduced funding  with doctors blogging about how medical education can learn from engineering,  and questions being asked about how many engineers there are in healthcare, the need for more operational management skills, and the perpetual and ongoing interest in learning from Toyota about lean and human factors from safety critical industries and so on.

We don’t just need more engineers in manufacturing and industry, we need them in the NHS too, and we need to keep them in the profession.  As a profession are we ready?

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