Restoring Our Health Care System to Health

Some economists attribute about 50 percent of the annual rise in health care costs to medical technology. Technological advances have allowed doctors to treat previously untreatable conditions and prolong both the duration and quality of life. However, as engineers, we believe that new technology opens up greater access and that scalability holds the power to drive down costs. Witness, for example, Moore’s Law at work in the area of information and communications technology.

Thus, we cannot help but wonder whether technology can actually make health care more cost-effective. On November 18, we convened more than 250 researchers, industry and agency partners, entrepreneurs and friends of the college at a conference in San Francisco to explore how engineering talent and methodologies could make health care more accessible and affordable.

Our gathering, the second annual A. Richard Newton Global Technology Leaders Conference, featured keynote addresses by Intel cofounder Andy Grove and Safeway CEO Steve Burd. Andy prodded us to hasten the translation of medical advances into high-volume, low-cost diagnostics and treatments, while Steve described how Safeway employees cut their insurance premiums by adopting healthy habits. Both talks can be heard online at the conference website, along with thought-provoking panel discussions about new biomedical devices, technologies and service models that let patients assess their own health risks or manage their own care.

An added highlight of the day was Matt Tirrell’s announcement of a new master’s degree in bioengineering, to be developed jointly with UCSF, that focuses on translational medicine. As envisioned, the program will prepare leaders in developing and deploying new biomedical technologies and in evaluating the cost of translating innovation into clinical services. It will also include capstone projects in which students design and develop new prototypes, typically in collaboration with industry partners. The idea comes from Andy Grove, and we are indebted to him for it.

Matt, who joined the college in July as the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Chair of our bioengineering department (see related story in our Fall 2009 Forefront), is already hard at work developing this program and others. Our aim is to provide our students with a new kind of education, one that combines technology innovation with business acumen, clinical service models and an understanding of regulatory frameworks, and also offers them experience in developing projects with potential for real-world impact.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies
Email Dean Sastry