NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas A&M To Train Students As 'Physicianeers,' Doctors With An Engineering Mindset

Photo courtesy of Eric Frey
These prototypes of oxygen-based bandages, created by the startup MedNoxa, are the result of collaboration among engineers, doctors and university researchers.

Medical school students today are trained to diagnose complicated diseases, they’re rarely trained to engineer the solutions themselves. Soon, Texas A&M will start training doctors to also be engineers.

Early collaboration 

Half a century ago, a few physicians in Canada wanted to see if they could use electrical pulses to regulate a human heartbeat. They had the medical knowledge, but they needed an engineer. Only problem was, engineers and doctors didn’t exactly hang out, according to the man who helped invent the pacemaker half a century ago.

“In those days there wasn't much rapport between engineering and medicine, and I think that was one of the real problems in our research,” electrical engineer Jack Hopps recalled in a 1984 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“The medical people didn’t know the potential of engineering to a system, and we knew nothing at all about the medical problems,” he said.  

In the decades since, the silos separating engineering from medicine have begun to break down. The easiest place to see the collaboration here in Dallas is at the office of the startup incubator Health Wildcatters.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Eric Frey, founder of MedNoxa, at the Health Wildcatters offices in Dallas.

That’s where you’ll find Eric Frey, who majored in mechanical engineering and served nine years in the Marine Corps. The product he created wouldn’t exist without cross-discipline collaboration.

“Our technology [is] is a bandage that generates oxygen from the chemical decomposition of hydrogen peroxide,” Frey said.  

Basically, it’s a really fancy bandage. The patches have tiny channels that run between the layer of paper and silicone that can be pumped with milliliters of hydrogen peroxide. Then, a chemical reaction creates a small amount of air and water, which Frey says can be adjusted to promote healing. Frey set out to create this modern Band-Aid years ago, after his own wound care horror story.

“In 2004, I nearly lost my leg from a wound that became infected,” Frey said.  The small burn wound on his leg didn’t even hurt at first. But doctors told him the infection was almost to his bone.

“Fortunately, I was young and well-insured since I was in the military at the time, and it was a long and painful process, but they were able to save my leg.”

"It's very different to go from the field of 'We're going to play it really safe' to go out there and try something completely new that may blow up."

Speaking two languages

When Frey learned lots of people — especially diabetics — have wounds that won’t heal and some end up losing limbs, he launched his startup, MedNoxa. Of course, he had to cobble together a team to create the product. That’s how it's traditionally done. People speaking the language of medicine and the language of design and mechanical engineering join forces. But what if doctors or engineers were bilingual, so to speak, from the start?

That’s the idea behind a bold approach at Texas A&M called EnHealth.

“EnHealth is a new initiative, the first in the country in fact, that will integrate engineering into all colleges that are part of the healthcare enterprise,”Roderic Pettrigrew said.

He’s the doctor-engineer leading the charge. Texas A&M recruited Pettigrew from the National Institutes of Health in Maryland where he has served as founding director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Pettigrew says the EnHealth curriculum will challenge medical students to think about better ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease while they’re in school.

Credit Courtesy of Eric Frey
Courtesy of Eric Frey
Health care startup MedNoxa's oxygen-based bandages are the result of a cross-discipline collaboration.

“And from this sort of engineering-based mindset — a mindset that we call 'physicianeers' — should emerge a group of students who are better equipped and more effective and efficient in problem solving,” he said.

Students will graduate with an MD and masters in engineering in four years. Hubert Zajicek, a doctor and CEO of Health Wildcatters, says creating physcianeers might be tough to do. Engineers and physicians approach challenges very differently. Imagine, for example, they meet someone with a hearing problem.

“A physician may look at hearing aids, other assistants, cochlear implants, trying to figure out what is the problem and is there a fixable solution?” Zajicek said. “I think an engineering approach may be what do we need to build an ear?”

Zajicek says the ethos of engineering and entrepreneurship is also distinct from that of medicine, where the mantra is "do no harm."

Credit Courtesy of Texas A&M
Physician-engineer Roderic Pettigrew will be the first CEO of Texas A&M's new Engineering Health initiative.

“It’s very different to go from the field of ‘We’re going to play it really safe’ to go out there and try something completely new that may blow up.”

Still, he says giving doctors the tools to think like engineers could be valuable. Frey, who created those smart Band-Aids, agrees.

“I think the more cross-training you have, the better it enables all that collaboration you need,” Frey said.  

Just a handful of students are part of the pilot program at Texas A&M now, with plans for several dozen to be part of the first class in July 2019.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.