“EiS fundamentally opens and expands a student’s understanding of the opportunity they have to influence the future of healthcare. It helps show them where their contributions can fit in.”
Dr. Antony Hodgson
EiS Founder and Professor of Mechanical Engineering
For decades, discovering and translating effective solutions to clinical challenges was very much a one person-one laboratory affair. But true innovation can’t happen in a silo. The issues we face today, and in the future, fundamentally require an effective collaboration between on-the-ground clinicians and engineers. For those collaborations to bear any fruit at all, engineers need to better understand and train in the clinical environment.
Enter EiS, the first program of its kind in Canada.
Where it started
There is a huge benefit to having engineers take a leadership position in the medical design process. Their technical knowledge and fresh perspectives can potentially produce more creative and far-reaching solutions.
When EiS was originally proposed, these benefits were well-recognized. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, which had historically only authorized clinical trainees to participate in shadowing programs, gave full and enthusiastic permission for biomedical engineers to take part.
“We also had to recruit clinical departments to be partners,” says Dr. Hodgson. “We were fortunate to find some people in the early days who were willing to take a chance on us, and several of these early collaborations have grown and developed over the years – they are our repeat customers.”
But there were obstacles as well. Hospital staff, nurses, and clinical professors with no research component to their duties, don’t have any explicit support from the healthcare system to participate in innovation processes. Those who do take part are doing it out of their belief in the program’s impact, and the goodness of their hearts. “This remains true to this day,” says current program director, Dr. Roger Tam. “Most of our clinical collaborators work with us on a volunteer basis. I must say that their generosity amazes me year after year.”
Insights From a Pandemic
COVID-19 dramatically demonstrated the importance of being able to rapidly develop and introduce new medical technologies into clinical practice.
And this wasn’t just vaccines. A team of SBME students comprised of EiS participants made international headlines when they came together to build a low-cost ventilator that placed top ten of more than 1000 teams representing 94 nations in the Code Life Ventilator Challenge.
What we saw in 2020 was a forced scientific advancement that put the collective attentions of the world squarely on the discipline of biomedical engineering; and the implications of this go well beyond 2021. The clinical and technical understanding deployed to meet the pandemic has opened new avenues for further advancements, and it was knowledge gained in collaboration between clinicians and engineers that made this possible.
The increasing number of biomedical engineering programs around the world that now include a clinical component in their curriculum are a result of the clear upside to having agile and flexible thinking ready to go to work on the challenges of health and healthcare. And it’s thanks to these programs that the community was able to meet the pandemic head-on.
As these programs close the gap between academic and practical outcomes, more technologies are produced that can benefit everyone. There is only upside.
Where We Are
EiS has come a long way in 10 years. 139 students, including this 10th cohort, have passed through the program. Arbutus Medical, a company launched through EiS in the program’s second year, is going strong as an example of successful commercialization.
Recent projects with Praxis have garnered media attention (e.g., sports grip, AccessiBelt) with plans for commercialization that will give students experience in the process of patenting, IP negotiations, and bench-to-shelf production.
“I believe our portfolio of projects demonstrates the potential of EiS to have more big wins, and this is one of the reasons why VCHRI is supporting our program as part of their innovation/business development strategy.”
Dr. Roger Tam
EiS Director and SBME Associate Professor
To help the students get the most out of their shadowing experiences, EiS recently partnered with Providence Health Care Media Services to produce instructional video on cardiac surgery, shot with engineering perspectives in mind. TA support throughout the summer has made it a little easier for busy clinicians to participate while also lightening the load in identifying projects that best fit EiS educational objectives. “More and more we find that clinicians are approaching us with project ideas, and some are actually quite knowledgeable in the biodesign process,” says Dr. Tam.
The last two years have also added an entrepreneurship element to the program with workshops conducted by e@UBC and, in collaboration with Mitacs, EiS has began offering financial support for promising projects so that students can continue to work throughout the summer and beyond (This can also be used by students to satisfy the internship requirements of an MEng Degree.). But the expansion hasn’t stopped there either. To learn more about advanced prototyping, students are encouraged to take advantage of the program’s recent partnership with BCIT.
EiS has even convened an advisory committee (on which Dr. Antony Hodgson sits) consisting of individuals with extensive expertise in engineering, design, business development, education, and the MedTech industry. This only underscores the value of the program, especially when considering that every committee member gives their time freely as a volunteer.
“Our PhD and MASc students don’t always get structured experience in design at the graduate level, through their thesis projects. The systematic framework of needs assessment, ideation, and prototyping is something that our EiS students can apply in their own thesis work. It’s another facet of training that will prepare them to be leaders in their future careers.”
Dr. Karen Cheung
Director, Graduate Biomedical Engineering Program
Associate Director, SBME
Where We’re Going
Supporting post-course activities is one of the main priorities for the future of EiS. Oftentimes, projects can’t be pursued once the course ends; lack of time, resources and funding all play a hand in this.
“Imagine a future in which we find ways of making the further development and success of these projects a core part of the thesis or project work for some of our graduate students,” says Dr. Hodgson. “This would represent a bit of a departure from the conventional thinking about MASc work as most such projects rely on the research grants of faculty members.”
There is also an opportunity for a “Designing Healthcare Technologies Program” that is more funded by the healthcare system and clinical departments based on the benefits these projects directly deliver to them.
And what about a kind of flip-side version of EiS? “Perhaps a ‘Doctors in the Shop’ or ‘Doctors Prototyping’ program that trains doctors (medical students, residents, fellows?) to work with engineers,” Dr. Hodgson adds.
“An ideal scenario would see industry partners participate in the entire design process, start-to-finish, so that they could propose projects in collaboration with clinicians, mentor the teams throughout the course, and host internships afterwards,” says Dr. Tam. “I’m open to any model in which an industry partner would mentor a team working on a project with industrial relevance.”
“We are very excited about continuing to build on the fantastic foundation the first 10 years of EiS has provided. As we grow and evolve EiS into new areas and with new partnerships, we are thankful for the outstanding clinical, not-for-profit and industry organizations that have supported us to date. Stay tuned – exciting plans afoot for the next 10-years of EiS.”
Dr. Peter Zandstra
Director & Professor, SBME
Investing in All Our Futures
With the paradigm shift of the last year, it’s time that modern healthcare systems recognize how much, and how critically, they rely on biomedical engineers to advance the world toward the next stages of global health and wellbeing.
A wealth of untapped resources and benefit for all is waiting to be realized in the collaborative BME laboratories across hospitals, clinics and institutions. Programs like EiS are leading the way, but they could be doing so much more with the right kind of help.
Medical innovations require these young professionals to work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and common enterprise. We as a society should be complementing this with our own collaborations—to muster resources, to bring awareness, and to make medical science fiction a reality.
The opportunity to expand what’s possible is limited only by our imaginations.
Engineers in Scrubs began as an NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program in 2011. Since 2018, the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute has generously provided additional support to expand and enhance the EiS program. The Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and The Centre for Hip Health and Mobility are core EiS partners, and provide essential teaching and prototyping facilities, and technical expertise.
We are immensely grateful for the support of all of our sponsors, partners, and collaborators.
Our Partners Over the Years
BCCH Research Institute
Branch of International Surgical Care
Department of Dermatology
Department of Emergency Medicine
Department of Medicine
Department of Ophthalmology
Department of Orthopaedics
Department of Physical Therapy
Department of Radiology
Department of Surgery
Department of Urology
Fraser Health Authority (Surrey Memorial)
GF Strong Rehab Centre
Lower Mainland BME
Medical Device Reprocessing Department
SCI Patients and Consumers
Praxis Spinal Cord Institute
Providence Health Care (St. Paul’s Hospital)
EiS Advisory Committee
Geof Auchinleck, CEO, Chairman & CEO, Claris Healthcare
Lawrence Buchan, Co-Founder & CEO, Arbutus Medical, EiS alumnus
Penny Clarke-Richardson, Director, Strategic Implementation, Blusson Spinal Cord Centre (retired Dec 2020, but continues to sit on the committee as an independent)
Paul Cubbon, Assistant Dean Innovation, Sauder School of Business
Antony Hodgson, EiS founder and UBC Professor in Mechanical Engineering & SBME
Arushi Raina, Director of Commercialization, Praxis Spinal Cord Institute