The Galway ‘physicianeer’ looking to make healthcare more high tech

13 Sep 2022

Image: Prof Derek O’Keeffe

Prof Derek O’Keeffe is focusing on how healthcare can be improved by embracing new tech, and is acting as an interpreter between the languages of engineering and medicine.

Prof Derek O’Keeffe describes himself as a physicianeer – with a background in both medicine and engineering. He holds a medical doctorate as well as a master’s and PhD in biomedical engineering, having studied at the University of Limerick and what is now called the University of Galway.

He was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard, a Green Templeton scholar at Oxford and is a graduate of the Endocrinology Clinical Fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in the US. His career has seen him volunteer around the world, work with NASA, and find ways to treat patients in remote communities using drone tech.

O’Keeffe currently works as a consultant physician at University Hospital Galway and is professor of medical device technology at the University of Galway.

‘Ultimately, we hope the term “digital healthcare” becomes obsolete in the next decade and instead becomes known as simply “healthcare”’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on

My research laboratory at University of Galway is called the HIVE (Health Innovation via Engineering) and its strength is its interdisciplinary collaboration.

Our collaborative digital health work was recently featured on RTÉ’s Change Makers. The programme highlighted our use of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and robots in medical practice. In addition, viewers saw the evolution of a clinical needs-led innovation called HapNav, which is a wristworn device that helps blind people to navigate a room using ultrasonic ranging and haptic feedback.

The HIVE lab currently has over 20 different research projects ongoing at the moment, including a new state-of-the-art remote care initiative that will transform chronic disease management.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Our HIVE lab research is pushing the boundaries in the use of state-of-the-art technology in clinical care. Our bedside-to-bench-to-bedside innovations span epidemiology (eg digital contact tracing) to diagnostics (eg AI biomarkers) to treatment solutions (eg 3D-printed stents).

This work has already directly impacted and improved patient care. We expect further impact from our research when it shows the potential improvement in human health by embracing digital technology. Ultimately, we hope the term ‘digital healthcare’ becomes obsolete in the next decade and instead becomes known as simply ‘healthcare’.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I think to be a researcher is to be curious. This is a fundamental researcher trait, whereby you constantly want to discover answers to new questions.

For me, I was always curious how things work from mechanical to electrical, from chemical to biological. My training to date in engineering, science and medicine has answered many of these questions, but has also made me think of myriad more!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As a physicianeer (physician/engineer), my research covers two very different but complimentary areas. Clinical medicine has lots of problems and engineers are solutions orientated – so it is a perfect recipe for innovation.

However, from a clinical standpoint, my colleagues often don’t understand the technical solutions that are needed, and my engineering colleagues often develop interesting technology in search of clinical problems. Therefore a challenge is acting as interpreter between these two ‘languages’ to ensure that good communication, understanding and ultimately appropriate solutions happen!

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

It is fantastic in Ireland that thanks to our world-class primary and secondary education, our population has a good foundation of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine).

This was seen in our positive response to the science of Covid-19, both in the initial phases (#FlattenTheCurve) and later during the vaccination phase, where thankfully we had one of the highest uptake rates in the world per capita.

I believe that all STEMM researchers should actively try and engage with the public about their research and act as interpreters for advanced topics. As Einstein said, if you can’t explain it easily, then you don’t understand it well enough.

Personally I encourage all of our HIVE members to actively engage with STEMM outreach – for me, it’s as important as academic publications, patents and conference presentations.

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