As surgeons we sit in an interesting position when it comes to surgical technology. Most of us spend a good portion of our day using cutting edge biomedical devices, but we are often disappointed when they do not live up to our expectations. Unfortunately, our involvement often ends there. We either accept the device as imperfect and integrate it into our surgical practice or we dismiss it as not helpful and look for alternative methods. We leave the development and refinement of surgical devices to our engineering colleagues. Is this the most surgeons have to offer?
Few of us have the time or knowledge to spend a large portion of our careers in the laboratory designing and testing new surgical technology. However, surgeon input is an essential part of developing and refining innovative devices. Surgeons have expertise on the unique problems that we face in the OR; however, collaboration with our engineering colleagues is uncommon. This occurs for many reasons including: time restraints, lack of guidance, unfamiliarity with each other’s specialty, etc.
Yet biomedical innovation remains a promising academic resource for surgeon participation. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has an annual budget of $343 million. Surgeons are primed to benefit from these research dollars if we can develop collaborative teams with our engineering colleagues to build the proverbial better mousetrap.
How can surgeons participate? We need to reach out to our engineering colleagues and invite them to the OR to help them understand the problems we face and help us develop solutions. Recently we were working on refining a new fiber-optic imaging device to help determine tissue perfusion in the OR. The device worked wonderfully in the engineering lab and during our ex-vivo validation studies. However, in the OR it would shut down for no reason. Finally, the engineering team figured out that every time they heard the high-pitched squeal of the Bovie™, the device would turn off. The engineers made some small adjustments and the device worked beautifully. It was not until both surgeons and engineers were working together in the OR that a relatively simple problem could be overcome and the project could move forward.
It seems logical that surgeons and engineers are best suited to work together on biomedical research in a collaborative effort. But how can surgeons begin the collaboration process? The first step is to identify a problem that you feel biomedical technology can help with. As surgeons we face challenges in the OR almost every day. The next time a difficulty occurs ask yourself, “What do I need that can make this easier?”
The next step is being willing to simply ask for advice or assistance. Many academic hospitals and engineering colleges have formal collaborations, which provide opportunities for clinicians and engineers to work on technology development projects. We encourage all our colleagues to seek out these opportunities. Alternatively, a simple email to like-minded colleagues in a different discipline can help launch a fruitful collaboration. In our experience academic engineers are more than happy to hear from surgeons about collaborative opportunities.
Finally, don’t get discouraged. Like all research, developing biomedical technology takes time. There are bound to be obstacles that need be overcome, but often persistence will pay off. Biomedical technology research has the potential to be a rewarding academic endeavor to the surgeon who is eager to be part of a collaborative team. Bridging the divide between the problems we face in the OR and the solutions developed in the engineering laboratory has the potential to improve surgical care for years to come.