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COVID-19 Highlights Importance of Biomedical Engineers

By Miriam Bello | Tue, 09/29/2020 - 14:40

Q: How has COVID-19 highlighted the need for biomedical engineers?

A: Healthcare services are supported by three pillars: medical staff, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. If any of these pillars falls, care cannot be delivered.

Unfortunately, Mexico has a history of not fully recognizing the importance of the third pillar. While the first two tend to be well-covered, medical devices are often abandoned. From tongue depressors to ionizing radiation treatment equipment, medical devices are necessary to treat people.

Unfortunately, institutions will often reduce investment in equipment and maintenance without realizing the consequences. Ventilators have been the first cause of concern for hospitals as many of them knew that their equipment might not be in optimal condition to address a crisis like COVID-19. Critical cases require a ventilator, not to mention correct infrastructure.

The general Mexican healthcare system lacks a solid base of biomedical engineers to address this problem as the sector has not fully recognized their crucial role in healthcare. Every piece of equipment that is brought to the country or purchased by a medical facility should be reviewed and maintained by a biomedical engineer. Some devices that are especially designed for specific physiological and anatomical compositions so they undergo a specific evaluation to enter the country. Moreover, regular maintenance and proper operation is required to ensure patient safety.

Q: What have been SOMIB’s main contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico?

A: There are five strategies that SOMIB is encouraging. The first is the responsible purchasing of medical devices following a proper evaluation. Second, we have called on biomedical engineers to support facilities during the crisis and provide maintenance on installed ventilators. This is key because old equipment is being used instead of new machines. Demand for these devices is very high; Mexico originally did not rush to get new technology, which made the need to fix existing equipment even more urgent.

Third, we have taken on the task to find ventilator manufacturers and to lobby for equipment purchases from them because we know they have undergone the necessary certification and regulatory processes. As a fourth step, we called on colleagues and institutions that have ventilators to make them available for the health crisis. Schools, companies or biomedical engineers will sometimes have the equipment, so their contribution would be meaningful.

Lastly, SOMIB has worked with the industry to try to find a possible ventilator prototype that can be used for COVID-19 purposes. Creating a medical device can take months and rushed prototypes are only allowed during war. Having an unsafe ventilator can cause problems that are worse than the crisis. Mexico also lacks monitors, beds and medicinal gas systems.

SOMIB has registered around 20 ventilator projects as a response to the crisis. Some of these have been successfully developed but there are many steps and regulatory processes to go through, which takes time. We try to advise developers as they undergo the process, whether it is a student project or a much more complex product from a professional manufacturer. The most important thing right now is to push them forward as carefully as we can because we still do not know if all of these new units will be required.

Q: How does SOMIB work with the government, society, academia and the private sector?

A: Historically, SOMIB has had a close relationship with CONACYT, the Ministry of Health and COFEPRIS. We are very open to communicating any doubt from our members and to advise them through their processes of regulation or certification. Six years ago, we worked to create this network to connect public and private sector players. We have learned that not all areas of biomedical engineering are known, which is why it is key for SOMIB to be a link between these actors.

Q: What are your short-term goals for SOMIB?

A: As a result of COVID-19, we are creating guidelines and reference documents for the key devices needed during the pandemic, such as gas systems, ventilators and conditioning rooms. We are also developing protective protocols for biomedical engineers on the frontline. All these documents are available as reference materials. Just like when MIT released its ventilator guidelines to the public, SOMIB wishes to provide support by answering frequently asked questions and addressing concerns that range from ventilator development to diagnostic equipment for early detection. We are listening to our community and their concerns, and channeling biomedical engineers to where they are needed. But most of all, we are trying to raise awareness about the importance of maintenance for medical devices and of having a strong biomedical area at all hospitals and medical facilities.

 

The Mexican Society of Biomedical Engineering (SOMIB) has contributed to the professional and scientific development of biomedical engineering since 1978. Today, it is the largest organization of biomedical engineers in Mexico and Latin America

Miriam Bello Miriam Bello Journalist and Industry Analyst