Engineers and doctors develop new healthcare technologies

Biotechnology Micro and nanotechnology Optics Health technology Medical equipment and systems Hospital layout and design Health and diseases Innovation and product development Entrepreneurship

New healthcare technologies are needed to prevent, diagnose and treat the increasing number of cases of disease associated with increases in life expectancies. And this calls for doctors and engineers to work together.

The healthcare sector is facing major challenges. As people live longer, we are also seeing an increase in age-related, lifestyle, and chronic diseases. This means an increase in the number of people living with dementia, arthritis, asthma, allergies, and heart disease. While the healthcare system is facing mounting pressures to cut costs, technological advances are creating considerable potential for improving existing solutions and developing new healthcare technologies.

As a direct consequence of these developments, more and more engineers at DTU are now working with healthcare technologies compared to a decade ago. At the same time, our research into healthcare technologies involves many more departments and disciplines than was the case previously.

“New technologies and advances within bioengineering are paving the way for improving the prevention and treatment of diseases, and cooperation between doctors and engineers is playing an ever more important role,” says Senior Vice President Niels Axel Nielsen, DTU.

“Building close and stable professional partnerships is important to ensure that engineers understand the challenges facing doctors, and that doctors are aware of the technological possibilities. By working closely together, doctors and engineers gain valuable insights into each other’s fields of expertise, and the result is a dynamic environment, where clinical results and experience continuously come together and transform into development.”

Drug delivery and telemedicine

To help address the challenges facing the healthcare sector, DTU develops solutions within both prevention, diagnosis and prognosis as well as treatment and monitoring, rehabilitation, and health infrastructure. This involves, for example, research within biophotonics, sensors, medical signal processing, nanocapsules for drug delivery, telemedicine and robotics.

DTU is involved in a number of strategic partnerships intended to strengthen healthtech research and cooperation with both the business and healthcare sectors. It gives the engineers a chance to test their theories in practice and engage in dialogue with potential users.

One example is the partnership between Clinical Professor and Consultant Poul Jennum and Associate Professor Helge B. D. Sørensen from DTU Electrical Engineering. Based at the Danish Center for Sleep Medicine, Department of Neurophysiology at Glostrup Hospital, Denmark, Poul Jennum works with physiological methods and the diagnosis of brain diseases.Together, the two of them have found that early indications of Parkinson’s disease are concealed in the regulation of dream sleep—more specifically in what is known as REM sleep, when most dreams take place. Based on a number of electrophysiological markers, they are now developing a tool which will be able to identify future patients. This will make it possible to develop medicine which can stop the degeneration caused by Parkinson’s disease. 

We need each other

The partnership is one of several in which the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology is engaged. A total of seven engineers work at the department. According to Poul Jennum, the work processes are changing dramatically as are the challenges facing the engineers in their daily work. The same is true of the complexity of the technological solutions:

“The cooperation between doctors and engineers calls for a very high level of specialist knowledge of, for example, methodologies, measuring technologies, and data management. For example, the data from our physiological measurements take up more than six gigabyte. We are looking at a completely different class of data management than was the case earlier. Moreover, the various technologies are developing rapidly—for example when it comes to portable devices. That’s why we need each other.”

No more 'fix and forget'

Another aspect of the work which is changing dramatically is the way in which we will be working with healthcare technologies in the future. Four concepts will come to the fore: personlization, prevention, patient involvement, nad prediction. These are the words of Professor Jakob E. Bardram,DTU Compute.  He is also Director of the Copenhagen Center for Health Technology (CACHET), where DTU—together with the Capital Region of Denmark, the City of Copenhagen, and Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen—is developing and testing new healthcare technologies which can help patients to a better life while easing the pressure on the healthcare system.

Signs are that we will be able to deliver more personal diagnostics and treatments with the help of new technology. But we will also see a higher degree of patient involvement, as patients become increasingly involved in preventing, monitoring, and diagnosing their own diseases. Moreover, it will be possible to predict disease progression through the collection and analysis of large volumes of clinical and behavioral data, which can be used preventatively and to tailor individual treatment programmes.

“Like the health services in other western countries, the Danish health service is based on a ‘fix it and forget it’ philosophy: patients are admitted to hospital and ‘fixed’, after which the healthcare system ‘forgets’ about them until next time they need treating. The model is not compatible with the health status of the population that we are seeing now, and which we will be seeing in the future," says Jakob E. Bardram.

“We have realized that for people to become healthier, it has to be a personal project. Leaving it to the healthcare system is no good. It’s a question of prevention and of treating patients over the long term. Therefore, the patient has to be part of the treatment."

Healthcare technology must be strengthened 

DTU is part of a sector development project which focuses on future challenges in the field of healthtech. The report will be prepared in cooperation with relevant enterprises and other stakeholders in the industry.

The main purpose of the sector development project is to identify the technological challenges facing enterprises in the short and the long term—just around the corner, so to speak—and to find out what sort of DTU research is needed.

It is intended to help Danish enterprises improve their chance of positioning themselves in the national and international markets for healthcare technologies. The project will hopefully contribute to strengthening growth, competitiveness and job creation in the research field of health technology.

You can’t just ‘forget’ about the patient

The trend is seen all over the world, including in the USA, where back in January President Barack Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative—an initiative which is to help doctors tailor treatments to individual patients.

At the beginning of 2016, Jakob E. Bardram travelled to the USA together with a number of other researchers from DTU to find out more about American healthtech solutions, visiting for example the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Medical School and a number of hospitals and companies. What Jakob E. Bardram saw was that the Americans are absolutely clear about the fact that the US healthcare system is facing a challenge:

“The Americans believe strongly that technological solutions are the way forward. Their innovativeness and eagerness to work together are reminiscent of the dotcom wave in the 1990s. Also, the development is supported politically. Among other things, it has been decided that hospitals are not reimbursed for their expenses if a patient is re-admitted within one month of treatment. This places new demands both on treatment at the hospital and on follow-up in the home, where technology for ongoing monitoring and follow-up will play a key role. In other words: The patient is not ‘forgotten’, but is monitored following his or her discharge from hospital.”

Focus on data analyses and patient data

Associate Professor Winnie E. Svendsen, DTU Nanotech, also came on the inspirational trip to the USA. Today, she has started POC Solutions together with Dan Høgdall, a doctor at Herlev Hospital and PhD student at the University of Copenhagen. Together, they have developed a chip for diagnosing early-stage cancer.

Healthcare technology is Denmark’s chance

"Healthcare technology is Denmark’s chance. It calls for very intensive cooperation between industry, the universities, the healthcare system and the local authorities. "
Clinical Professor and Consultant Poul Jennum

If you ask Poul Jennum what to expect from the healthcare technologies of the future, he is convinced that it is all about keeping up to speed. Denmark is in the top 10 when it comes to developing healthcare technologies, which is something we as a country will be able to live off in the future. But Denmark is a small and vulnerable country compared to the USA. Therefore, we must make the most of all our contacts and all the partnerships which we are part of.

“Healthcare technology is Denmark’s chance. It calls for very intensive cooperation between industry, the universities, the healthcare system and the local authorities. At the same time, we must ensure that our young people are educated within this field, that we look to other countries, establish strong research centres and centres that integrate healthcare and industry and elevate the various specialist sectors so as to pave the way for intensified efforts. If we can do this, we are looking at a huge potential.”