Bridging Design Gaps – Comparing Engineering and Physician Approaches to Problem-Solving: TEST

So here we are!  Step 4 at last—TEST!  Things may go a little haywire from here, but we’ll find a way to bring everything back in line by the end…

In our recent article series, The Lonely Surgeon has been examining the age-old question of why engineers and physicians sometimes fail to produce useful medical technology together.  After all, we all started out as generic fresh-faced science students who eventually diverged down our respective pathways.  If we started from the same point, why don’t we communicate better?

Initially, we set up a common framework for problem-solving that applies to just about any scientific field.  To refresh:

Generic Problem-Solving Model

We then spent a couple of articles talking about those first three steps: IDENTIFY, THINK and CHOOSE.

Here’s where things get a little weird—Today, we’re going to talk about Step 4: TEST.  TEST for an engineer may look very different from that of a physician’s perspective.  On the other hand, perhaps they aren’t so dissimilar… After all, when we go to form an experiment, we all perform some basic steps:

  • Look at your available resources
  • Define your metrics
  • Create an experiment to generate data that fit your parameters
  • Hope that you didn’t screw something up

I think most scientists can relate to that little algorithm, right?  If we can agree upon that, let’s take a closer look at how this process happens for each of our scientists.


Engineers, as I’ve said, have a tough job.  Fortunately, they are generally a clever and resourceful bunch who often have some cool toys at their disposal.  Physicians also have some cool toys, but these may be quite different in their applications.  There’s a lot of overlap here, by the way.  After all, isn’t a cardiac monitor just a functionally-specific oscilloscope?  But can an engineer tell you which arrhythmia is on the screen at any given time?  And can a physician explain the concepts of gain and dc offset when generating that signal?  Perhaps…  Both scientists are certainly smart enough to figure these things out, but it may not be a part of the daily routine.  Engineers often have an extra advantage, too—computer simulation.  You can put together some pretty sophisticated models today and get a good idea of how things will work if you do it correctly without ever building a single physical thing.  With a patient—less so.  You can’t really experiment on patients.  Sure, you can look at population health data and do large clinical trials.  Research physicians run all sorts of experiments in laboratories every day.  But for Mr. Jones and his diabetes when he walks into your clinic?  He doesn’t really come with a disk drive or an output cable.  When it comes to day-to-day medicine, almost all of it counts as “field work.”

So engineers and doctors need different types of tools to suit their daily needs and environments.  Some of these tools will overlap.  Some of the techniques they use will, too.  Often, a scientist’s prior experience and training will affect her perception of how to use her available tools when designing her experiment.  There’s no right or wrong answer.  It’s just about the box you live in on a regular basis and what works best for you.


As an example, of this, I would like to offer up my toolbag versus my brother’s toolbag.  Both of us have toolbags.  Actually, my brother has a tool room.  He has everything from screwdrivers to welding equipment.  But what does he keep in his favorite everyday toolbag?  Wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, files, measuring tapes, levels… Lots of carpentry-and-plumbing repair fare.  That’s because he’s done a lot of these sorts of repairs.  My toolbag, on the other hand, has one screwdriver [granted, a very nice screwdriver that allows me to swap out all sorts of adapters, but a single screwdriver nonetheless.]  I have one hammer.  I may or may not have a wrench… I should probably check on that.  I do have about three pairs of wire cutters, a few circuit indicators, a fusebox scanner, my trusty old Heathkit multimeter, wire caps, crimpers and, of course, my beloved automatic wire stripping tool.  Oh, and you can’t forget the toolbelt that I keep inside my toolbag in case I end up on a ladder somewhere.  As you can probably tell, I am the voltage monkey in my household.  So what if my brother and I swapped toolbags?  Would my toolbag help his plumbing project?  Ehh, maybe not.  Could I install that extra GFCI outlet with his toolbag?  It would certainly take me a lot longer and probably more trips over to the fusebox if I tried.  We both regularly steal stuff from each other’s toolbags—returning them later, of course—depending on the nature of our current project.  However, we have each found over time, that we require different types of technology based on the kinds of projects we routinely do.

In the same way, engineers and doctors use several of the same “tools.”  There will be differences, yes.  These differences are often due to the circumstances that each scientist encounters.  If my brother and I swapped toolbags entirely, would I become an expert plumber?  Heck, no.  Would he be able to rewire the basement outlets?  Eventually, but I suspect he would be YouTubing a lot of electrical DIY lessons as he went along.  The tools don’t make the scientist… but they sure can make things easier if you know what you’re doing with them.

So the Engineer and the Physician do have some common goals.  Both want to find an effective solution.  Both want their results to be consistent and reproducible.  Both have resource limitations: physical, time-based, financial, etc.  Let’s sum this up as an extension of our previous table:

Steps 1-4 of the Generic Problem-Solving Model

Our latest row does have more highlighted blue text showing where our differences may be, but there are still several things that appear common between our two groups.  If our goals and methods are essentially the same, it may be that the biggest hurdle lies in the details. 


So if our Engineer and our Physician each recognized the limitations of the other, would this improve how they both communicate over a problem?  Could it really be that simple?

Has it ever been simple for humans to recognize the limitations of others?



Your poor colleague… You’ve already pestered her twice already with your homework from this.  You’ve already bribed her with coffee.  You may need to up your game this time and throw the lemon bar in with that cappuccino.

Find your colleague from another discipline yet again.  If you have your list of possible solutions to a common problem from last time, bring it along with you.  This time, show her your list of solutions and ask her which one she would pick.  Then take it a step further—ask her how she would test that possible solution.  See what her brain devises.  Would you have thought of the same thing?  Would her solution seem reasonable in your world, or do you have some tidbit of knowledge that would make her solution less desirable?  When you tell her this little bit of information, can she pivot her original theory into something more practical to the situation?  That’s not always an easy thing to do.  But as you both hash out a plan, ask yourself how it sounds.  Is it reasonable?  Do you both agree that it could work? 

Uh oh…

You’re collaborating.

The world should brace itself for your innovation onslaught!

In our next article, we’ll go over our last step: REVIEW.  And it may be a good time to review everything we’ve discussed while we’re at it. 

Until then…


Photo Credit: holdentrils | Pixabay