Viterbi, Keck planning joint program

For the first time ever, USC will unite its medical and engineering schools to help inspire breakthroughs in medical technology.

The new Health Sciences Technology program, or HST@USC, is a joint effort between the Keck School of Medicine and the Viterbi School of Engineering. The program, which creators say is the only one of its kind, will give engineering and medical graduate students the opportunity to work with and learn from each other as well as learn how the two fields can come together.

Terence Sanger, provost associate professor of Viterbi, was appointed the academic director of the Health Sciences and Technology program in August. He trained in engineering and medicine in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, which is the model for HST@USC.

Sanger said HST@USC originally planned to create an engineering-oriented medical school, but the plan has since evolved.

“We don’t want to teach engineers to be doctors or doctors to be engineers,” Sanger said. “We just want to take the best engineers and teach them how to work with doctors.”

Initially, the program will consist of 20 students — 10 Ph.D engineering students and 10 medical students. The students will take some classes in their main fields and some courses that will bring the two groups together. For example, engineering students will take an introduction to critical medicine course alongside medical students to become more familiar with the language of physicians.

Sanger said the program will also offer a project course where students will be broken up into groups of two medical and two engineering students and be asked to come up with concrete solutions to medical problems.

“The expectation is that varied expertise will lead to different discussion than would happen if it were all med students,” Sanger said. “Engineers will bring a fresh viewpoint with the questions that can be asked and how problems can be solved.”

Allan Abbott, associate dean for curriculum at Keck, said one application of medical technology produced by the union of medicine and engineering is the concept of an iPhone application that could monitor blood pressure and send it out to be documented. He said he hopes the program at USC will lead to the development of more creative concepts.

“If we collaborate with engineers and doctors, both at the instructor and student level, we’re more likely to be able to come to new solutions than if we work separately,” Abbott said.

Elizabeth Fini, vice dean for research at the Keck School of Medicine, said one of HST@USC’s goals is to break down barriers and create a better flow of ideas between the medical and engineering students and faculty. She added the two fields have an almost symbiotic relationship.

“Engineers have technology that they need to apply, and physicians need technology,” Fini said. “You need to get these people together.”

Sanger said though many other schools are interested in combining science, engineering and medicine, the kind of explicit collaboration planned for HST@USC is unique. USC’s program is distinct even from its model, the Harvard-MIT program, which features medical school training with emphasis in engineering and science.

“I don’t think there are any medical programs across the U.S. that integrate medicine with engineering like this,” Sanger said.

There is a reason this integration is uncommon, Fini said.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “Lots of schools try to integrate medicine and engineering, but it’s difficult when everyone is in their own world and they don’t always understand each other. Engineers don’t speak the same language as physicians.”

Sanger said one of HST@USC’s goals is to address this problem.

“It’ll be about developing the language between medicine and engineering,” Sanger said.

The program is still in the early curriculum development stage, but Sanger says the goal is to begin the courses in fall 2011.

HST@USC will seek engineering students interested in health care applications as well as medical students with some degree of an engineering background.

“There are students in undergraduate engineering programs considering medical school and deciding whether or not they want to turn off the engineering part of their brain for four years,” Sanger said. “As part of HST, they wouldn’t have to.”

Sanger said having a group of students explicitly trained to work between the two fields would be a boon to both the Keck and Viterbi schools. He said the program’s goal isn’t to change anyone’s expertise but teach students how to use what they know.

“We want to work on our strengths in both medicine and engineering,” Sanger said. “We can form new bonds and do research that wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Abbott said the program will benefit students in both fields.

“The idea is to give engineering students some experience dealing with patients and medical problems and med students having some exposure to biomedical engineering through patient care experiences,” Abbott said.