From a niche industry dedicated to building more powerful computers and networks, technology is now driving progress across every other sector, including medicine. It’s an exciting time for the next generation of doctors who have long adapted to using technology in their daily lives and recognise its potential to transform clinical practice. In fact, many medical students find that university gives them the perfect opportunity to explore the possibilities and develop their own ideas.
Vaishnavi (Vaish) Sharma is part of this wave. Vaish is a student at Hull York Medical School (HYMS) and treasurer of the HYMS Med Tech Society. "Med tech is the overlap between medicine and technology," she explains. "Being a member of Generation Z, I really have used technology my entire life but I really started to notice its applications as I grew older. It’s amazing to have all this knowledge at our fingertips: it’s made the world feel more unified and helped people learn and gain new skills."
Smartphones have democratised technology, believes tech entrepreneur Dr James Gupta. "Everyone has got these incredible computers in their pocket, be it patients or clinicians and that gives them access to something really powerful," he says. "Part of the appeal of Med Tech is using the technology people have to deliver better and more affordable healthcare to more people. A great example of this is a company called Peek which has developed a $5 plastic adaptor to a smartphone camera that is able to take better or equal quality retinal images to a $25,000 split lamp."
Like Vaish, James was interested in technology long before arriving at Leeds Medical School in 2011 and found an outlet for his coding skills in his second year. As he previously revealed to Student Notes, James and a friend used their spare time to create an intelligent online revision platform so they could practise questions and prepare for their exams. The app also proved a hit with fellow medical students and its runaway success took James’s career in a different direction. Since graduating in 2017, he has been working full time as CEO of Synap, also based in Leeds.
When Vaish started her medical degree in 2019, she was quick to find others who shared her interest in technology. "I discovered the Med Tech Society during Freshers’ Week," she remembers. "I was inspired to join by my experience during hospital internships in Dubai when I saw how technology played a part in almost every diagnosis and every treatment. I realised that at the rate the technology is developing, it will be even more prominent when I qualify so I thought joining the Med Tech Society would really help."
Established in 2018, HYMS Med Tech Society aims to increase the awareness of med tech and is open to students from all academic disciplines. "A mix of medics and non-medics brings other perspectives to the table," says Vaish. "If we limited the membership to medical students, it would probably take up too much time, whereas someone studying computer science or other engineering majors already know quite a lot about their field. As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and we can achieve more if others can bring their different opinions and perspectives to the topic at hand."
While it is relatively new, the Med Tech Society is actively involved in organising events. For example, it is hosting the next national med tech conference which will attract students from universities around the UK to network, listen to talks and take part in workshops. In addition, there are 'hackathons' where students get together to find a technological solution to a specific problem within a deliberately intense timeframe. "To take a random example, we might be creating an app or software to help people avoid getting diabetes," says Vaish. The team that comes up with the best product wins a prize and it’s up to them to decide whether to develop their concept. "Don’t forget that Facebook started off as an idea for students," she points out.
While not conceived at an organised hackathon, the early development of Synap highlights why medical schools are ideal environments for tech innovation. In James’s experience, the instant feedback from fellow students was particularly valuable in refining his revision app. "In tech start-ups, a lot of success is based on how quickly you can go from version one of your product to version 100. The more you can improve it and the more rapidly you can respond to user feedback, the sooner you are going to get to something that has mass market appeal. Businesses spend ages and a lot of money on focus groups but in the early days being a super-user of your own product and living with people who were also using it gave us a definite advantage."
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The same point applies to the development of med tech applications. "I think in that respect medical schools have got a big role to play because they provide access to students and junior doctors who would be really willing to test out the products early in the development cycle and give feedback. I read about a software system developed for A&E departments where users found they could only have one record open at a time, meaning they would have to discard their notes if another urgent case came in. I don’t believe the product would have got to that point if clinicians had been involved early on. Of course, med tech is a complex and fast-moving field so the ultimate solution would be combining the expertise and passion of the people within medical schools and the deaneries with experts and specialists on the technology side of the fence – computing and engineering. Solutions will come from different groups of people working together, as with HYMS Med Tech Society."
In addition to a knowledgeable customer base, universities are established centres of research and innovation which makes them attractive to investors and entrepreneurs. James and his co-founder were therefore able to take advantage of the existing financial and networking opportunities at Leeds. "We won an innovation award from the medical school in 2014. That really helped because at the time we weren’t generating any revenue and it meant we had something to put on our website which gave us some credibility. Leeds University also has a well-regarded enterprise scheme called SPARK which awarded us an enterprise scholarship. As well as financial support, that included office space and workshops on some of the nuts and bolts of running a business which were really helpful."
By the end of his fourth year, James decided to focus entirely on Synap after completing his studies but he stresses that his decision is unusual. "When medics approach me, it tends to be because they have got an idea and want to know how they can do this alongside their clinical practice."
As CEO of Synap, James often returns to Leeds to talk to undergraduates with an interest in technology and business. So, what does he advise those like Vaish about getting involved with med tech?
"First don’t wait because there is never an ideal time. Whether its parents to look after, or kids, or you are saving up for a mortgage, there is always a bunch of reasons to put something off to next year. At some point, you just need to get started with your idea. I’d say the first port of call should be things like the hackathons because you get to meet some like-minded people, hopefully with complementary skillset to yours. The work you do there might not set the world on fire but it’s a start and it will put you in front of some people at the NHS that are interested which will help to grow your network.
"Med tech is generally a difficult field because of the complex due diligence and purchase process. However, there are now more NHS schemes to encourage home-grown clinician-led innovation compared with five years ago, including the clinical entrepreneurship programme."
The growth of university med tech societies in recent years has been an important development, James observes. "There wasn’t that infrastructure in place when I started medical school but I think having a med tech society alongside areas like surgery and psychiatry definitely helps signpost people to a place where they can go and meet others who share that interest."
If med tech leads to a better allocation of clinical resources then more patients would benefit and that would be a good outcome for everyone.
For Vaish, membership of the Med Tech Society has shifted her perspective. "It’s influenced the way I approach my studies. For instance, if there is a lot of information to learn for a particular module, I’m like: 'Is there an app that could help me learn quicker?' Subconsciously, I’m always thinking about how our lives could be made easier if we use technology more."
And even if she doesn’t get involved in the development side, she believes her interest will make her a better doctor. "I think it’s important to be as receptive as possible and be keen to learn how to use med tech because it might benefit my patients. It is difficult to develop technology but I think if doctors can learn to utilise it well, they are helping its advancement in medicine."
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has given technology a higher profile for medical students and practising clinicians. "When the crisis happened, we moved to online classes and there was a change in the teaching of clinical skills," says Vaish. “We usually focus on how to talk to a patient but it became how to talk to a patient over the computer or on the phone so you can make yourself clearer. So already, technology and its applications are part of our learning and that’s going to happen more in the coming years. Many of the problems we face in medicine will have technological solutions and that will be incorporated into our education.
"I believe we are now on the cusp of a new era of medical technology which will ultimately benefit doctors and patients," she continues. "For example, during my clinical placement, patients would sometimes tell us that they find it difficult to come to the hospital because they had transportation problems. Utilising technology like remote consultations can minimise those kinds of barriers."
"During the pandemic, it’s been a case of necessity is the mother of invention," James comments. "Things like video consultations were probably already in the pipeline but would have taken ten more years before they really came through and there were some valid concerns. The pandemic meant GPs had to make a decision and overall, that is probably going to be a good thing."
"At the same time, I don’t want people to get the impression that we are saying that the future of healthcare should be all about video consultations. There has to be a human side to medicine and I wouldn’t want technology to take over but if we can provide that option to a patient who wants the convenience of a video consultation that frees up their clinician’s time to focus on those who really need it. If med tech leads to a better allocation of clinical resources then more patients would benefit and that would be a good outcome for everyone."
Interview by Susan Field.