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The Needs and Future of Healthcare Engineering in Malaysia

Healthcare Engineering is the integration of engineering knowledge into healthcare practices, including the screening, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management of illness, as well as the preservation and improvement of physical and mental health and well-being, using the services provided by medical and allied health professionals.

The creation and integration of a collaborative engineering tool in the healthcare business have a long history of success. Recent changes in industrialisation and the expansion of global digitalisation are increasing the demand for more particular knowledge integration and transformation across all industries, including healthcare.

In an exclusive interview with Mohit Sagar, Group Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, OpenGov Asia, Associate Professor Kalaivani Chellappan, PhD, PTech of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) shared an in-depth insight on the needs and future of healthcare engineering in Malaysia.

Professor Kalaivani Chellappan believes that healthcare engineering is one of the most important societal transformations, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the years that are to come. If engineering and health sciences are properly integrated, she is convinced, they can transfer, translate, and transform more effective and efficient solutions for nations worldwide.

Engineering’s contribution to Malaysia’s Healthcare System

Professor Kalaivani Chellappan distinguished between healthcare technology and healthcare engineering. Healthcare technology, also known as Healthtech, is the application of technologies developed to improve all aspects of the healthcare system, whereas healthcare engineering has commanding expertise in the development and delivery of healthcare technology management programmes and contributes significantly to the development and review of hospital-wide strategic policy.

“Healthcare technology is just doing the front, it’s not the backbone. The backbone is healthcare engineering. Biomedical engineering can’t build the backbone because it’s looking for a specific application of the principles and problem-solving techniques of engineering to biology and medicine,” she says emphatically.

Technology solutions assist healthcare professionals to improve performance, promoting communication across systems and managing costs. As organisation demands rise, healthcare technology may expedite operations, automate tasks, and improve workflows.

Healthcare system engineers are an essential part of the engine that will propel health care forward. They reduce costs by streamlining processes, improving patient care and creating efficiencies. They accomplish this in part by testing and examining many relevant variables – whereas most people who want to improve healthcare processes only focus on a few specific applications that are not able to bring a holistic change.

In addition, most healthcare organisations have data that could be used to improve their procedures and business practices, but they may lack the tools and/or expertise to extract insights from that data.

On the other hand, newer technologies, such as blockchain, cloud computing and AI tools based on machine learning and deep learning techniques, can assist healthcare organisations in uncovering patterns in massive amounts of data while making it more secure to manage a more user-friendly service.

Professor Kalaivani Chellappan applauds the engineers – who she considers to be the unsung heroes of global health. During the crisis, engineers made huge contributions, from delivering oxygen to making mobile apps, data dashboards and even building facilities for COVID-19 patients.

What lies ahead in Healthcare Engineering

The use of artificial intelligence technology in the healthcare industry has undeniably transformed clinical practice. There is a lot of hope that AI applications will provide significant improvements in all areas of healthcare. At some point, technology should improve patient care while also lowering costs.

AI has the potential to improve access and quality of care, which has previously been hampered by inadequate infrastructure and skill shortages, “The pandemic brings a realisation of how AI could contribute to the health care industry efficiency and reliability improvements.”

Contrary to popular misconceptions, AI-enabled solutions will not replace humans in healthcare because they are responsible applications that will always require a combination of data science and medical knowledge. Therefore, it is preferable to incorporate a policy in the healthcare system to protect against potential future challenges.

Professor Kalaivani Chellappan acknowledges that healthcare requires streamlined regulations and policies to allow start-up founders to be leaders in the digital healthcare space.

Healthcare technology is progressing in the right direction, from transferring data between institutions to connecting doctors and patients from opposite ends of the globe via online platforms. The digital transformation has taken place, thus adopting technology is no longer an option in most industries, and healthcare is not immune to this digital transformation.

Precision and personalised medicine, on-demand access to advanced telehealth, and streamlined clinical operations are all potential outcomes of a digital healthcare transformation. However, specific challenges must be addressed by the healthcare industry to fully realise the benefits of digital transformation.

Viewpoint: The Passion of a Woman

Since she was young, Professor Kalaivani Chellappan has wanted to be a doctor because of the suffering she has witnessed. Early on her two brothers passed away due to heart disease. Later, when she was 18, she lost her grandfather and a few years thereafter, at the age of 21, she experienced the demise of her father.

But she wanted to do more than treat people – she is passionate about bringing change to the healthcare system. “These are all incidents that keep on triggering me. I did not have any idea by then what healthcare engineering was, but all I knew was I want to bring change.”

Professor Kalaivani Chellappan elaborates on her journey and her experiences in becoming so ardent about healthcare engineering.

Everyone thought she was insane at that time because she left the best company in Malaysia without a job, for a teaching role. “I love teaching. I even joined different centres during holidays and taught in that way until I eventually joined UKM!”

In 1993 she was first introduced to AI and developed a taste and some passion for computing. The change from bio-medical engineering to healthcare engineering was indeed, and the most interesting a huge shift and she is grateful for the freedom that UKM gave her to set up her research.

When asked intended to replace the teachers and doctors with AI, she pointedly replied, “Teachers and doctors could never be replaced.”

The ability, willingness, and opportunity to share knowledge and best practices are vital to holistic, comprehensive and equitable development in this industry. The pandemic, as devastating as it has been, has afforded and promoted global interaction. It gave her the chance to offer her insights to India and Indonesia as well as a few other countries.

She is keenly aware that this is not an easy path, and the next tranche of experts need as much help and support as they can get. From her long and distinguished career, she feels one of the biggest challenges is to guide the younger generation in her sector and share her wisdom on how to bring change in the healthcare industry.

Most specifically, to her, is the gender disparity. She has observed people being rejected merely because of their gender even though their ideas are good and could help the economy. She understands that such do not just happen in Malaysia, but also in other countries as well.

“I can be just starting out, switching careers midway or even well experienced – people, and especially women, should be able to pursue what they become passionate about at any time. Joining the government at the age of 41, letting go of what I have, was a big decision,” she recalls.

She wants to ease the path for others, guide them and point out stumbling blocks. “What is most important to me is the journey and what I will leave behind for our next generation. I want to that I have left something behind, my legacy!” Professor Kalaivani Chellappan ends passionately.


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