Can you combine medicine and computer science

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Until he graduated from high school, Erik Laatsch was certain that he would study computer science. Schoolmates envied him for his clear vision of his future career. But after doing community service in the hospital, he realized "that it is not my goal in life to develop MP3 players". But he didn't want to give up technology, so he looked for a way to combine computer science with a field of work that helps people. The result was medical technology. Laatsch studied in Ulm, wrote his diploma thesis at Otto Bock, a manufacturer of orthopedic technology in Duderstadt, and has remained with the company to this day. The 32-year-old is now a group leader and develops embedded software for mechatronic systems with his team. They control artificial joints in prostheses and orthotics on arms and legs.

Software controls joints and computer tomographs

Prostheses and implants, tele- and regenerative medicine as well as e-health, the integration of information and communication technologies into the health system, are the most dynamic fields of innovation in medical technology. This is the conclusion reached by the Association of Electrical, Electronic and Information Technologies (VDE) in its "Medtech 2020" study, which was presented at the World Medical Technology Congress at the beginning of September. Over 600 experts from all over the world were interviewed for the study. In their opinion, computer science is by far the most important key technology for the industry.

Medical technology proves to be crisis-proof

For Marc Kraft, chairman of the medical technology department in the Association of German Engineers (VDI), the progress in medical technology is largely due to the rapid development in computer science: "Today, almost every medical device contains intelligent electronics, often with microprocessors This is the heart of the system control. These systems need to be programmed. " For imaging systems such as computer or magnetic resonance tomography, extremely complex data processing is necessary, which would be inconceivable without powerful software. In addition, a lot of software would be needed for calculations, data management and the construction of the devices. Kraft therefore attests that computer science in medical technology is "of central importance in many respects".

Nevertheless, medical technology companies are also feeling the effects of the global financial and economic crisis, albeit in a milder form. "The sector has already shown itself to be more crisis-resistant than other industries in the past. That is why we only expect a slight decrease in the full year result," is the forecast by Sven Behrens, managing director of the Spectaris trade association. In the first half of 2009, sales were two percent below the previous year's result. Around 1250 companies have joined the Medical Technology Association.

The outlook is generally good: in the past ten years the industry has grown by an average of seven percent, the industry as a whole by only three. One reason why medical technology has so far been significantly less cyclical than other sectors is the long-term budgeting in the healthcare system, which as good as excludes short-term fluctuations in demand. And there is a sure guarantee of growth: With the rapidly growing world population and an aging society, the need for medical technology products and services will continue to increase. In 2008, the German medical technology companies achieved an annual turnover of around 18 billion euros - of which a good 60 percent was accounted for by foreign business - and had around 100,000 employees.

Complex products require IT knowledge

The orthopedic technology manufacturer Otto Bock reports an increasing demand for engineers and IT specialists. 185 of its employees have studied computer science, medical technology or engineering: from mechanical engineers to electrical engineers to measurement and control technicians, a wide variety of disciplines are represented. Bock employs developers, designers, test engineers, product managers and software developers. "In the future we will need more computer scientists, medical technicians and engineers, because technologies and products are becoming more complex and specialists with well-founded training are required for this," predicts Michael Hasenpusch, Managing Director for Research and Development. The devices should become smaller, lighter and cheaper. The essential product functions are based more and more on electronics and mechatronics. Rapid innovations and attractive design are also important.

Erik Laatsch is satisfied: "I have to do with IT and through my work I give people back a bit of mobility." He also feels safe: "Before people save on their health, people tend to do without a new car," says the medical technician. (at the)

CW: Bachelor or Master - what should the path of engineers and computer scientists into medical technology look like?

KRAFT: I favor the path that we take at the TU Berlin: In the bachelor's degree, we impart basic engineering knowledge in order to build on this in the medical technology master's. But there are also universities that offer bachelor's degrees in medical technology.

CW: Are only specialized IT specialists needed in medical technology?

KRAFT: That depends on the employer. Larger companies are organized in such a way that the organizational structure based on the division of labor also enables the recruitment of specifically qualified personnel. Here it is possible that computer scientists develop algorithms for calculations without having a precise idea of ​​what these software modules are used for in the medical device. In smaller companies, generalists are more in demand, who decide on the design of the user interface in contact with the users. Computer scientists who specialize in medical applications can do this better.

CW: How do you rate the career and future prospects in the industry?

KRAFT: Excellent, in terms of employment policy, medical technology is a lucrative and reliable employer.

  • Medical IT specialists develop, maintain and sell medical information and documentation systems, such as hospital information systems, imaging therapy and diagnostic procedures, computer-aided surgical techniques or knowledge-based systems.

  • Medical IT specialists work for software and database providers, IT service providers and in the healthcare sector. Research and development, manufacturers of medical devices or universities open up further fields of activity. In addition, companies in the pharmaceutical industry, public administration or management consultancy offer employment opportunities.

  • Medical informatics can be studied at technical colleges and universities as an independent subject or in connection with biomedical engineering, but also as a focus within computer science courses.

The Federal Ministry of Education funds research and development in medical technology with around 25 million euros per year. The strategic cooperation of different partners along the value chain of new medical technology products is supported as well as the technology transfer in the application or the training and further education of the next generation of scientists.