The Symbiotic Relationship Between Surgeons and Engineers Who Drive Medtech Innovation

By Tommy Carls, VP of Product Management, Proprio
LinkedIn: Tommy C
LinkedIn: Proprio

In today’s healthcare industry, technology and medical tools play a more important role than ever before. Clinics, pharmaceutical companies, community health information systems, portable health devices, wearable technology, and more generate huge quantities of health data. While the collection and processing of health data are increasing through automation, the complexity of our healthcare system and health issues requires a symbiotic relationship between surgeons and engineers to understand how this technology works together to shape the future of medical technology.

Innovation in healthcare is essential to the future of medical technology. A report from McKinsey says although the medical technology industry’s revenue growth has accelerated, on average, during the past ten to 15 years, much of the improvement has come from small- and mid size companies. In 2016, analysts estimated growth for these companies to be around 11 percent, but by 2022 it had topped 17 percent. For large diversified medical technology companies, growth expectations barely budged: from 4.6 percent in 2016 to 4.7 percent in 2022. What’s driving innovation in these small to midsize companies? It’s clear that med tech innovations hinge on the symbiotic relationships between surgeons and engineers who are uniquely and efficiently suited to innovate and develop new technologies.

Surgeons are able to identify a problem and think of a solution, but they don’t necessarily have the training to bring that idea to fruition. In contrast, engineers are trained to identify a problem, evaluate all possible solutions, and then focus on the best ones. As the healthcare industry faces new challenges, this partnership will be critical to innovating the future of medical technology. Surgeons are uniquely positioned to identify clinical needs. They become experts on biomedical devices they routinely use and how they could better live up to expectations and meet a need. But their expertise often ends there. The role of the surgeon in medtech development is often limited to the development process or evaluating tools that are already in use.

At the same time, engineers are tasked with solving quantities of problems – but it’s unlikely they’ll ever spend as much time using an individual device as a surgeon does. Engineering in a vacuum won’t transform patient care at an accelerated rate. Enter the rise of the ‘surgineer’, a term that began circulating in 2019 that focuses on the critical cross-section of skills used among surgeons and engineers. In response to the need for this type of approach, universities globally have begun deploying programs focusing on training medical technologists as surgineers to address this specific need for innovation in healthcare. Consider the new Gangwal School of Medical Sciences and Technology in Kanpur, India which plans to train the next generation of medical professionals with an approach to research and technological innovation. This high level approach to education acknowledges the important symbiotic relationship between the surgeon and engineer to understand not only the tools used by surgeons but how those tools are developed and most importantly, the impact on the patient.

Engineers and surgeons are well suited to collaborate on biomedical research. But how can surgeons begin the collaboration process? The first step is to identify a clinical or healthcare problem that they are trying to solve. Consider how you can fix an existing problem or improve on an existing solution – don’t try to solve every issue immediately. It’s also important to consider the environment where you can bring a solution forward. Consider the issue of surgical workflows. They can be time-consuming and complicated to accommodate all of the tools and tasks required to complete a procedure. The disruption of surgical workflows were found to account for 20 percent of operating time in a review of 38 research studies. This is an example of an area where engineers and surgeons would be well suited to collaborate with the goal of optimizing surgical workflows with the goal of reducing overall operating time and costs.

Healthcare is driven by technology more than anything else, and it will continue to develop dramatically in the future. As we explore and debate future healthcare trends, cultivating new understanding of the symbiotic relationship needed to drive innovation between surgeons and engineers will remain critical to creating technology that will improve patient outcomes.

It’s gotten harder for legacy medical device companies to bring new technology to market. First, it’s inherently ambitious and opens the door to risk. That presents an opportunity for such Surgineers at small and mid size companies to innovate new ideas to solve healthcare’s most pressing issues. This is such a critical relationship in medical technology innovation and there’s such a need for it that in 2022, Yale announced it would be launching a M.S. degree in Personalized Medicine & Applied Engineering.

Enhanced Visualization and AI

Surgeons are uniquely positioned to identify clinical needs and engage in innovative problem solving, no matter the specialty or topic area. Becoming a successful innovator and entrepreneur is a challenging undertaking. The slow evolution was in large part related to limitations in technology.

However, if you ask most surgeons today what their number one frustration is, they’ll say that there’s more power and intelligence in their iPhone than in the OR. They know the technology exists and yet it isn’t meeting clinical needs in a meaningful way. Surgeons are still missing technology and real-time clinical data to improve decision-making, which is critical in the high-pressure, highly variable situations which happen repeatedly during any surgery. This is what really drives surgical outcomes.

You might be surprised to know that today one in five patients undergoing surgery has one or more complications. That can translate to increased length of stay, repeat surgery, additional medical treatment, legal issues, and increased costs. Surgery is also being performed by many different people with different levels of skill, experience, and training. As such, consistent outcomes are challenging to achieve.

The evolution of surgery is happening before us – the future, as created by surgeons and engineers – will include surgical standardization, consistency and advanced imagine with AI and ML.