Announcing our research priority areas
13 July 2020
These represent current, pressing healthcare challenges across the globe.
The UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering is pleased to announce our four priority research areas. The following areas reflect significant healthcare challenges that are being faced by societies across the world, and they also anticipate issues in the imminent future.
These priorities also represent areas where an interdisciplinary engineering approach is required, and which take full advantage of the expertise available across UCL and our partner hospitals. Close interaction with UCL's partnered biomedical research centres will also be important to each area. Our cross-cutting position in UCL’s research community will allow us to bring knowledge and innovation from multiple disciplines to bear on these pressing challenges.
Our aim is to bring together and grow research activity in these areas, and we believe each one presents an opportunity for UCL's healthcare engineering community to be world-leading, and develop digital and medical technologies that will transform lives.
1. Self, shared, primary and community care
Achieving healthcare’s ‘triple aim’ of improved health outcomes, improved patient experience, and reduced costs requires patients to be fully engaged in their health and health care, and for services to be integrated, providing seamless care close to the patient’s home. Achieving this has proven extremely challenging. This theme will explore how to use new technologies, including data science, machine learning, sensors, wearables and other digital technologies to enable people to adopt healthier lifestyles, actively engage with their health, taking their rightful place as an equal member of a multi-disciplinary healthcare team, and improve the quality and efficiency of service delivery across primary, community and social care.
2. Timely detection, diagnostics and intervention
Disease detection and diagnosis are at the heart of clinical decision making and patient monitoring. The development of improved tools to detect disease and to aid diagnosis is therefore a substantial component of healthcare engineering activity, with engineering-led examples including improved imaging technologies, sensor design, and machine learning applied to diverse and rich signals. Successful activity in this area will lead to detection and diagnostic developments that have clear value to patients and healthcare systems, in terms of accurate, affordable, and relevant diagnosis. The relevance of disease detection is heavily dependent on when it occurs; detection that is too late may mean treatment opportunities are lost, whereas detection that is to early may lead to wasted resources. Both scenarios may lead to unnecessary patient anxiety. We are therefore prioritising not only innovation in detection and diagnosis, but also those innovations that provide the right information at the right time to patients and healthcare practitioners.
Timely diagnosis ultimately enables intervention at the right time. Engineering technologies underpin the development of most healthcare therapies and interventions, and we aim to pioneer advancements in this field. Focus will range from regenerative therapies and tissue engineering, to simulations that help clinicians prepare for surgical procedures or predict the efficacy of drug delivery, to the application of nano-engineering, robotics, medical imaging and augmented reality to enable surgeons to intervene with ever greater precision.
3. Healthy ageing and multimorbidity through the life course
Healthy ageing is a national and international strategic priority. For example, the UK Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge mission (2019) aims to “Ensure that people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035”. There are many opportunities for medical and digital health technologies that address this challenge across the life course, from healthy conception and growth through to older age where many people are managing multiple long-term conditions. Technologies range from apps that facilitate behaviour change for improved health through to advanced diagnostic and therapeutic technologies that support the delivery of highly individualised care. Future technologies are likely to exploit data on genetic, social and environmental determinants of health and support the integration of care across multimorbidities. They will support and coordinate the expertise of specialist and generalist health professionals as well as patients and carers, to address the complexity of health management, exploiting advances in medical device developments, data analytics, and user-centred design.
Effective and cost-effective healthcare technologies
The need for healthcare technologies that are both effective and cost-effective has never been more pertinent. Globally, the world faces an expanding and ageing population with an increasing set of complex needs and health issues and an increasing inequity of access to affordable healthcare. Effective and cost-effective healthcare technologies can tackle this gap. From technology that turns portable mobile and wearable devices into accessible monitoring and diagnostic tools, to low-cost manufacturing processes for medicines, to using big data and AI to find more effective workflows, and to digital apps that encourage preventative lifestyle choices – there is significant opportunity for impact. A growing shift towards precision medicine should reduce the likelihood of inappropriate treatment, and avoid associated costs. Reducing unnecessary workload and improving the efficiency of clinical workflow will also impact patient experience and the mental health of healthcare professionals.
Close collaboration with international partners will offer us opportunities for bidirectional learning, will allow us to understand what the real challenges are in each region and what is needed to make technologies translatable and usable in low-resource settings. Crucially, the need for effective and cost-effective healthcare technologies is also felt keenly in countries like the UK. As the NHS faces increasing resource constraints, this need has become particularly pressing. Incorporating a frugal mindset into our research offers the potential to save the NHS significant resources, which could then be directed toward patient care instead. As sustainability becomes increasingly important, we aim to develop technologies that have longevity and usability for many years.