Metrology for Health

Interview with Tobias Schäffter (PTB, Germany), convenor of the task group ‘Metrology for Health’

Improvements in the life expectancy and health of individuals have been driven by constant innovation in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and medical conditions. High quality healthcare is underpinned by the accurate physical, chemical and biological measurements used to diagnose health conditions and ensure therapies are delivered safely and effectively.

EURAMET’s European metrology research programmes (EMRP and EMPIR) enable a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach to focus research on specific themes and support greater measurement accuracy and improved traceability to SI units.
There are 9 running projects from the first Health call of the current research programme, EMPIR. The next call for Health projects will open in January 2018.

The previous research programme (EMRP) provided Health themed research focussed on the measurement requirements of technologically advanced screening and imaging methods, and diagnoses of chronic diseases, such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and cardiovascular conditions. Examples of how project research has been taken up by the medical community and information on each project’s key technical achievements are available in the impact report on the EMRP Health theme.

Since 2013, a dedicated EURAMET Task Group has been working to develop a strategy on how metrological R&D should evolve in EMPIR regarding the grand challenges in the area of health.

Where do we find metrology for health in our daily lives and why is metrology, the science of measurement, important for challenges in the health sector?

Health-related measurements are an integral part of the modern care-cycle, i.e. from medical diagnosis to treatment selection and the follow-up of therapies. Such measurements can be rather simple, like heart rate, body temperature or blood pressure, or more complex like blood tests, medical imaging or modern molecular therapies. People expect health-related measurements to be accurate, reproducible and comparable, attributes which are typical characteristics of metrology.

Unfortunately, these measurement approaches are not always able to be applied in medicine and the data can only rarely be traced back to accurate standards. Hence, medical decisions can vary depending on which equipment or technique has been used and have subjective bias based on the knowledge of medical experts.

Over recent years, healthcare guidelines have included demands for more quantitative measurements to demonstrate selected therapies have been chosen in an objective manner. Accurate measurements also support the current trend for personalised medicine, where the success of a treatment relies on accurate doses of the prescribed drug delivered at the specified time.

What are the tasks and objectives of the EURAMET task group for health?

The aim of the task group is to form a coherent approach to measurement science (metrology) for health by supporting the development of a measurement infrastructure based on robust methods and rigorous standards. The task group consists of members, who are also active on other technical committees ensuring greater information flow.

The Health Task Group liaises with the Joint Committee for Traceability in Laboratory Medicine (JCTLM) and with professional healthcare societies that work on new clinical guidelines based on quantitative measurements. Metrology in health is rather new and many potential topics exist. Therefore, priorities have been identified and a Strategic Research Agenda for research projects within EURAMET’s EMPIR programme has been developed.

In addition to its task within the metrology community, the task group organises discussions and workshops with stakeholders such as clinical experts and industry.

What needs to be done in the metrology community to further support improvements in the health sector?

There is a growing interest in health measurement science (metrology). One of the major challenges is the enormous diversity of measurements and the strong interdisciplinary nature of the topic. Therefore, the metrology community needs a strong collaboration with clinical experts and health-related industry. Early involvement of stakeholders is key to identifying areas that will profit most from metrology.

Furthermore, it is important to demonstrate the impact of metrology in health, not only to improve accuracy and comparability of measurements but also to assess the benefits of clinical decisions. The demonstration of clinical benefit usually requires costly outcome-studies, which are often part of EU's Horizon2020 projects.

The Health Task Group has proposed a call-scope for the imminent EMPIR health call in 2018. This addresses important themes of the Horizon2020 programme to leverage efforts in medical research and metrology. Finally, the metrology community has the unique ability to support harmonisation of medical products with standards and supporting clinical practise through metrological quality assurance in clinical guidelines.

About Tobias Schäffter
Tobias studied electrical engineering at the Technical University in Berlin (Germany) and did his PhD in magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI) at the University of Bremen in 1996. Between 1996 and 2006, he worked as a principal scientist at the Philips Research Laboratories in Hamburg (Germany), where he created an internationally recognised research team and was responsible for the development of new MR-methods, reconstruction and MT-compatible devices for quantitative and interventional MRI.

In 2006 Tobias took up the post as the Philip Harris Chair of Imaging Sciences at King’s College London (UK). A major aim of his research was the investigation of fast and quantitative MR-techniques for cardiovascular applications MRI. His research focuses on rapid translation of new methodology into clinical practice to evaluate the benefit for the patient. In addition, he was director of the doctorial training centre in medical imaging.

Tobias has been head of the ‘Division of Medical Physics and Metrological IT’ at PTB in Berlin since 2015. In EURAMET he holds the position as convenor of the task group on ‘Metrology for Health’ and he coordinates an EMPIR joint research project from the first Health call.
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