By Katie Elyce Jones. Photography by Nick Myers.
Unlike tissue samples and electrical circuits, you can’t put a hospital under a microscope and observe how it works.
That’s part of why UT’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, known as IBME, was created. “We focus on patient care to the point that the patient and the health care professionals are part of our research team,” said Christopher Stephens, IBME research and outreach director.
Emerging technology is shrinking the gap between the laboratory and the clinic. Sensors are monitoring the body in greater detail, computer modeling is speeding up drug design, and data management tools are tracking patients as they progress through a string of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists.
The application of technology across medical and scientific fields means the gap between research disciplines is also shrinking. To meet the increasing need for interdisciplinary solutions, IBME has brought together staff and students from disparate backgrounds in science, engineering, computing, and business to tackle priority health care issues.
With UT Medical Center just across the river from campus, IBME investigators have a convenient hospital “ecosystem” where they can study patient treatment from beginning to end. The main objective is to find the ideal clinical pathway to maximize the quality of care and minimize the cost.
“Researchers are tracking information like how many procedures one patient undergoes, the doctors and nurses they interact with, and how their health information is entered in databases,” Stephens said. “These factors may be tied to why one patient is re-admitted several times and another is not re-admitted.”
The clinical pathway is the route a patient takes through diagnosis and treatment—such as from general practitioner to specialist to surgeon. Health care engineers seek to optimize this process by eliminating repetition and making sure a patient’s medical information is sent quickly and accurately down the pathway.
For example, after embedding himself in a stroke unit team and shadowing a patient, IBME researcher Emam Abdel Fatah developed a new computer application for tracking patient care.
“Making the system more efficient should not negatively affect quality of care. Ideally, payment should be tied to a successful clinical outcome. Our job is to analyze this process and ask what would really be best for the patient,” said Mohamed Mahfouz, IBME director.
To attract funding, IBME is organized into specialty areas that address national scientific and health priorities: biomechanics, biomaterials and regenerative medicine, health care engineering and bioinformatics, and medical sensors and devices.
To find the most innovative and efficient ways to approach these problems, IBME’s administrators stress the importance of a cross-disciplinary environment, especially for graduate students.
“People were doing biomedical research in silos,” Mahfouz explained. “We wanted to think of the problem a little differently. The institute allows people interested in biomedical research to come together from other departments under a common vision.”
By bridging these silos, researchers are designing devices for delivering medications and monitoring patient conditions. They are also using advanced computer models to engineer better joint replacements, and developing software to sync patients with their health care services through mobile devices to avoid missed appointments and unfilled prescriptions.
The institute’s research projects are designed to answer specific questions or solve specific problems that can be the main drivers of cost in the health care system. Its Healthy Aging Initiative develops technologies to help seniors—who consume about three-fourths of the federal health budget—manage chronic disease and the loss of physical and mental ability. Likewise, the Health Care Engineering Initiative tracks events following discharge from inpatient care. It analyzes incidents like negative drug reactions, which result in one in every five patients being readmitted to the hospital within thirty days, according to the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The institute has recruited forty-eight core and forty-nine affiliate faculty members. It was established by the College of Engineering and the Office of Research & Engagement in collaboration with the Graduate School of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Now in its second year, IBME is working to issue more graduate degrees and lay a strong foundation of peer-reviewed publications, research funding, and technology patents. However, the ultimate measure of the institute’s success will be the impact on its research partners—the patients who will receive better health care at lower cost.