Towards interdisciplinary medical innovation

Published: December 9, 2015
Taha Anver is an engineer and IT specialist, and is employed in IT academics at Aga Khan University

Taha Anver is an engineer and IT specialist, and is employed in IT academics at Aga Khan University

Asad I Mian MD, PhD is an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Paediatrics at AKU Taha Anver is an engineer and IT specialist, and is employed in IT academics at Aga Khan University

In a knowledge-based economy, the solution to a problem is often found by searching in areas outside of where the problem itself lies. Broadly speaking, interdisciplinary research links innovation with cross-boundary collaboration and the integration of different kinds of knowledge. Its contributions to medical innovation are undeniably large. For example, X-rays and lasers were discovered by physicists and all biomedical devices have been created with the help of engineers. Minimally invasive surgery, cochlear implants, cardiovascular diagnostics, synthetic insulin and biotechnology agents in general are just some of the achievements of interdisciplinary research and engineering. As medical innovation evolved, it also benefitted from the work of collective units comprising sociologists, psychologists, demographers and epidemiologists working on “innovations to counter social inequalities in health”. 

Interdisciplinary platforms for medical innovations are generally rare in Pakistan. However, there have been some significant achievements through this mode of research. One example is the creation of the Ommaya reservoir for the treatment of brain tumors by renowned Pakistani neurosurgeon Ayub K Ommaya in 1963. The researcher used philosophy of the mind and his study used the connection between emotions, religion and science to facilitate his medical discoveries. More recently, wrist bands for monitoring vital signs of pregnant women were launched in Islamabad by Dr Shariq Khoja. His team constituted doctors, biomedical engineers and IT experts.

Although formal academic programmes for interdisciplinary medical innovation would be a landmark in Pakistan, smaller initiatives, such as forums and conferences, can work as triggers and eventually lead to substantial outcomes. Thus, even if collaborations among universities are some distance away, initiatives at the student and faculty levels can be a meaningful place to begin. A few platforms in Pakistan include institutes that support research in the fields of biomedical devices and bioethics. The Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Lahore, is a platform that carries out research on biomaterials and tissue engineering. 

The business side 

A multitude of new arenas have emerged, including but not limited to the health care environment, process improvement, data analytics and behavioural aspects of professionals. These arenas have broadened the need and opportunity for students and professionals from other disciplines to contribute towards innovation in the medical and health care industry. The involvement of interdisciplinary students in working towards medical innovation and the methods through which this is achieved are unique, tried and have been put in practice by many renowned institutes in developed parts of the world. The involvement of students is also breaking pre-existing moulds and helping provide effective but affordable solutions at a time when the provision of health care is one of the biggest obstacles in the developing world.

In 2014, James Robert, a BSc student in product design and technology, designed an inflatable incubator. An article in The Guardian on Robert’s achievement as the international winner of the James Dyson award stated that an incubator can cost as much as £30,000; Robert’s inflatable incubator costs £250, including testing and transportation costs. The Harvard Business School and the Harvard Medical School have collectively formed a “Forum on health care innovation”. Their conference on “Five imperatives addressing health care’s innovation challenge” is a good demonstration of how collective work can add up to more than the sum of two ingredients. Besides health care specialists, experts including Tim Brown, the CEO and president of IDEO (a leading design firm), Nancy R McPherson and Clayton M Christensen, professors at Harvard Business School, have contributed insightful evidence and theories towards the objective.

In Pakistan, one such effort towards biomedical and health care-related transformation is the Critical Creative Innovative Thinking Forum (CCIT). A group of faculty and students from the fields of medicine, engineering and business host the forum at Aga Khan University, with the objective of promoting medical and social innovation in the country. Projects encouraged through this forum are those with the potential to make a practical impact in our society. Thus far, three Ignite conferences, in a style similar to TEDx, have been organised by the forum.Students and professionals from multiple fields contribute abstracts for creative ideas related to medical and health care innovation. Examples include an app to assist doctors in ER, use of music therapy in a hospital setting, and software to measure anxiety levels. The ideas selected were then presented in front of a live audience.

For innovation to gain quality and momentum in Pakistan, collective work will have to be initiated at all levels (universities, faculty, students and private organisations). Smart and advanced approaches, similar to those practiced by foreign institutions, need to be adopted. This will ultimately enhance the biomedicine and health care industries, as well as society as a whole.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2015.

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