New report: lack of NHS engineers is putting lives at risk

Date: July 14, 2014

• The Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ new report Biomedical engineering: advancing UK healthcare is calling for urgent action to prioritise the role of engineers in the NHS, and introduce a Chief Biomedical Engineer in every   NHS acute trust.

• The low priority given to NHS engineers is leading to problems caused by faulty medical equipment, cancelled operations and poor value for money for taxpayers
In 2013 over 13,000 incidents were reported to the UK regulator relating to faulty medical equipment, which led to over 300 deaths and almost 5,000 serious injuries.

With the increasing importance and complexity of technology used in hospitals, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ new report Biomedical engineering: advancing UK healthcare is calling for urgent action to prioritise the role of engineers in the NHS, and introduce a Chief Biomedical Engineer in every NHS acute trust.

Boosting the number, as well as the influence, of engineers in the NHS would help cut the number of incidents caused by faulty medical equipment. In 2013 13,642 incidents related to faulty medical equipment were reported to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); leading to 309 deaths and 4,955 people sustaining serious injury. These incidents can vary from faulty pace-makers to faulty equipment like CT or MRI scanners used to diagnose patients. This faulty equipment, or the unavailability of it, is also one of the major causes of cancelled operations.

As the technology used in hospitals becomes increasingly complex, the danger of improperly calibrated and validated equipment is also increasing. Indeed, there are huge implications to the mis-calibration of even basic equipment such as weighing scales – in 2008 a medical devices alert was issued warning of incorrectly calibrated weighing scales which led to a number of patients being given the incorrect dosage of medication. Furthermore ‘equipment failure/unavailability’ is cited as a major reason for cancellation of operations in NHS hospitals.

Dr Patrick Finlay, lead author of the report and Chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Biomedical Engineering Association said:
“Government and the NHS need to take urgent action to prioritise the role engineers play in hospitals and trusts.

“Technology is leading to huge advances in healthcare, but this technology is dependent on the work of biomedical engineers who are inadequately recognised and in short supply in most hospitals.

“Clinicians and engineers need to work in partnership to ensure that advances in medical technology are applied in the best interest of patients. The benefits of hospitals having a designated Chief Biomedical Engineer responsible for healthcare technology are clear.

“It is vital that engineers are at the heart of the planning, procurement, use and maintenance of high value equipment, as well as its calibration. It is only with engineers that properly informed choices on these issues can be made in the best interests of patients and taxpayers.

“This report demonstrates some of the exciting ways engineers can revolutionise healthcare through, for example, new, low invasive treatments to sense, measure and manipulate the human body; or by developing novel ways of tracking and monitoring personal health through mobile phone apps. But in order to reap the full benefits that technological advances can offer UK healthcare and the NHS specifically, the people who design, make, maintain and use these pieces of equipment need to be heard.”

Biomedical engineering: advancing UK healthcare features key case studies from UK academia and industry in the areas of: regenerative medicine, medical imaging and robotics, cardiopulmonary engineering, orthopaedic implants, physiological monitoring, m-health and e-health, assistive technology, rehabilitation and independent living.

According to the report, the UK is one of the leading countries in academic research in the area of biomedical engineering and has an excellent record in inventing and researching new medical devices. But often the results of this excellent research are then sold to international corporations for development and marketing because of the lack of long-term domestic venture capital. The development of many technologies, and in particular m-health and e-health, are also being hampered by a lack of international consensus on standards, practices and patents.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers therefore makes four key recommendations:

1.  Every NHS acute trust should have a designated Chief Biomedical Engineer.
2.  A single, dedicated funding programme for biomedical engineering research should be established in UK Research Councils.
3.  Industrial and taxation policy should promote long-term investment in biomedical engineering to encourage domestic development and manufacturing.
4.  International consensus should be pursued for global standards, a common device regulatory and approvals regime, and harmonisation of patent legislation in medical devices. Named UK leads should be agreed for these policy roles.

Academic Director, Professor John Fisher, contributed a chapter to the report on Orthopaedic Implants. Download the report now (opens PDF)

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