Phyllis Wise is chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Under her leadership, work at the intersection of engineering and medicine has grown tremendously at Illinois. Thanks to a $100-million gift, Illinois is adding about a dozen new bioengineering faculty and renovating a building to give its Department of Bioengineering a new home. Illinois has also proposed the nation’s first engineering-based medical school in collaboration with Carle Health System.
Wise is an expert in the gender-based biology of hormones in the human brain. Here, she reflects on the impact that engineering-based medicine will have on the world for decades to come.
How Big Data and Engineering will Change Global Healthcare
by Dr. Phyllis Wise, Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
By 2034 the modern standard of healthcare delivery – whether individually, regionally and globally – will be one that is engineering-driven and big-data fueled. Healthcare will be directed by a new generation of physician inventors and physician engineers – ones who merge the human side of medical care with the enormous number of diagnostic and treatment tools developed in the convergence of bioengineering, computing, technology and life sciences. We are right now in the early stages of a revolutionary shift from a medical education and delivery model still rooted in the 19th century to one that will fully integrate the rapid advances of technology with human health improvement.
A temporary electronic tattoo that measures heart rate or hydration level. Flexible energy-harvesting devices that convert the beating of your heart to energy that can power medical devices. An electrode array, smaller than a postage stamp, molded to the brain’s folds to treat seizures. Biobots small enough to swim in your bloodstream and precisely deliver medicine. Nanomaterials that allow medicines to more easily cross the blood-brain barrier. A lab on a microchip that can run a bloodtest in the field, no matter how remote. Biodetectors based on your cell phone. These are all in the lab today at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and soon they’ll be found in the hospital, in the home, and in the developing world. These are just a few examples from one university. Imagine this kind of innovation being played out across hundreds of institutions. These are the products that come when world-class engineers work together with biologists, computer scientists, medical doctors, and other experts.
Yet, we are only at the very outer edge of a wave of discovery and innovation that will lead to an era of improvements in human health that will be more significant than at any point in our history.
We look at periods of great discovery in our history and we cannot help but marvel a little at what those who came before us did not know or what they believed to be true. The sun revolves around the earth. Heavier objects fall faster. Disease is caused by imbalance among the four humors of the body. Or some of the early theories about the nature of electricity and magnetism.
In many respects we stand at a similar starting point today when it comes to understanding the vast complexity of our own minds and bodies and the interaction of these systems with the world around us. Unleashing the true potential of “Big Data” to affect health and medicine will require new analytical tools and algorithms, new computational hardware, and new security measures to keep confidential data safe. Similarly, we need new tools and new materials to deliver on the full promise of bioengineering to human health. Most of all, we need a new kind of doctor – one equally comfortable in the art of medicine as in the application of new technology.
If we continue to expand our investment in basic scientific research and we continue to push the edges of the possibilities offered by this convergence of engineering and medicine, within 20 years we will have the very real and very reachable possibility of providing better healthcare for more people at lower cost on a globally-significant scale.
This isn’t hyperbole. Look at the dramatic transformation of the world around us in just the past 20 years that resulted from the convergence of advances in electronics with communication and information. Just as we have seen the Internet era reshape the economic and political face of the world, we now have the ability – and the responsibility – to leverage our rapidly expanding strengths and expertise in bioengineering, computing and technology to reshape the delivery and the access to healthcare on our planet.