Dean’s word: Disrupting health care by design

November 1, 2015
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2015

When we talk about seismic shifts and unsustainable infrastructure here at the college, we’re usually describing earthquake engineering. But these days, those terms are heard just as readily in discussions about the future of health care, particularly as a “silver tsunami” of aging Americans brings challenges to today’s costly health care system.

Low-cost mobile sensing and imaging, digital fabrication and 3-D printing are changing the way we deliver health care.

In college labs, we are seeing explosive growth in compact, low-cost mobile sensing and imaging technologies to advance diagnostics, therapeutics and wellness monitoring. Our data scientists are creating a wealth of analytics for personalized medicine. Digital fabrication and 3-D printing in maker spaces like the new Jacobs Hall are generating customized prostheses and biomedical devices.

At last count, about 40 percent of the College of Engineering faculty is engaged in health-related research.

One new initiative, Health @ Home, promises to limit trips to the hospital with new tools for monitoring, screening and care to be used at home (or work, or school) — with greater comfort, lower risk and dramatically lower cost. Our industrial engineers are working alongside campus colleagues from economics, business, public health and policy to build a sustainable model of health care infrastructure.

Ribbon-cutting for Jacobs HallBerkeley Engineering leadership, benefactors and more than 700 members of the college community celebrated the opening of Jacobs Hall on August 20. The new building houses the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. (Photo by Noah Berger)Our clinical partners are key to these ventures, and Berkeley Engineering has benefitted tremendously from a close relationship with UC San Francisco, most notably in joint programs in bioengineering and translational medicine. A new partnership with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is already bearing fruit — an early collaboration with electrical engineering professor Ana Claudia Arias has resulted in clinical trials for a swaddling MRI vest to improve pediatric imaging.

Our vision to improve health care through engineering includes pioneering new translational tools, such as the organ-on-a-chip technologies from bioengineering professors Luke Lee and Kevin Healy, and providing access to care in low-resource settings, such as the CellScope from bioengineering chair Dan Fletcher. This fall, the CellScope will see its largest deployment yet, when 20 devices will be used to screen 30,000 people for safe treatment for river blindness in Cameroon.

Ultimately, our goal is to use all the extraordinary tools and talent we have here at the college to improve health and reduce suffering — for young and old, in homes and communities here and around the world.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

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