Lack of NHS engineers put lives at risk

Posted on 25 Jul 2014 by Victoria Fitzgerald

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is urging action to prioritise the role of engineers in the NHS following its most recent report released today.

Biomedical engineering: advancing UK healthcare reveals that 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.

These incidents vary from faulty pace-makers to faulty equipment like CT or MRI scanners used to diagnose patients.

Faulty or unavailable equipment is one of the major causes of cancelled operations.

The report states that boosting the number and influence of engineers in the NHS would help cut the number of incidents caused by faulty medical equipment.

As hospital technology becomes increasingly complex, the danger of improperly calibrated and validated equipment is also increasing.

There are serious implications even when basic equipment is not correctly calibrated, for instance, in 2008 a medical devices alert was issued warning of incorrectly calibrated weighing scales which led to patients receiving incorrect dosages of medication.

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 report has four 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.

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.