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An Engineer's Role in Medicine

The old adage is “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and sure enough, it has proven true in the face of a global viral outbreak. For nearly a whole year, the world has been gripped by uncertain times due to the COVID-19 virus and its unprecedented global spread. Finally, a vaccine has been created for the virus, and it is being distributed, but it took a lot of work to get it there. The distribution of the vaccine was not an easy process due to the requirements for it to be stored, which involves temperatures of -94°F. Previously, the lowest temperature for routinely given vaccines was only -58°F.

This discrepancy in the capabilities of the temperature-controlled supply chain (cold chain) was an imperative issue to solve so that the vaccine could be distributed and still be effective. An unlikely company held the answer to the cold chain issue, one that has freezers capable of dipping as low as -122°F. The company known for being the ice cream of the future, Dippin’ Dots, has been leasing and renting their cold storage freezers to pharmaceutical companies. The frozen treat is kept at these low temperatures through the use of dry ice packed around shipping containers, a material that can be as dangerous as it is cold. This cold storage, initially engineered for a variety of uses but predominantly used for ice cream beads, has proven to be an innovation that could work toward finally ending the pandemic that has shaken the world.

Innovations such as those seen in solving the vaccine storage issue have been prevalent all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it was manufacturing companies changing gears to make ventilators and other medical technologies or advances made in sanitation technologies. One technology that is being worked on is a small-scale EKG machine, which takes away the need for heart-rate measurements from a cumbersome EKG machine. Though this will not replace EKG machines in hospitals, it allows urgent care clinics or even places still developing to operate more efficiently with relative ease –– something many healthcare workers desperately need.

Another invention that is being developed in the medical world is a device that takes the guesswork out of inserting an IV. Often, when an IV is given to a patient, there is some leakage of the fluid from the vein into the surrounding tissue. This presents an issue given the nature of the COVID-19 virus and how it affects the respiratory system, where the patient may suffer from a fluid build-up that could be fatal. By guiding the fluid management in the IV through the use of a custom monitor, this issue can be controlled and remedied.

A final innovation being made is a process that utilizes ultraviolet light to sanitize breathing tubes in ventilators. Because of the pandemic, ventilators have become even more imperative for hospitals to have, but with increased use comes increased risk. If left uncleaned, a ventilator (or anything with bacterial build-up) develops a biofilm, which can cause many health complications and sicknesses. Through the use of UV radiation, this biofilm can be reduced and even gotten rid of. Though UV sanitation is not a new practice in hospitals, the form it takes can often be inaccessible for something like a tube on a ventilator. With the help of a UV light that is able to snake through the tube, this problem was solved.

Though these are just a few of the advancements being made in regard to medical technology, it is not hard to see that the field of medicine requires engineers to develop potentially life-saving equipment. Even in the midst of a pandemic, technological advances are being made and solutions are being developed to create a safer and healthier environment. The field of medicine is one of the most important fields of study, but without engineering as a technological vessel for medical advances, it becomes very limited.

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