What is Biomedical Engineering?
Biomedical Engineering blends traditional engineering techniques with biological sciences and medicine to improve the quality of human health and life. The discipline focuses both on understanding complex living systems – via experimental and analytical techniques – and on development of devices, methods and algorithms that advance medical and biological knowledge while improving the effectiveness and delivery of clinical medicine.
Biomedical engineers may work in hospitals, universities, industry and laboratories. They enjoy a range of possible duties, including the design and development of artificial organs, modeling of physical processes, development of blood sensors and other physiologic sensors, design of therapeutic strategies and devices for injury recovery, development and refinement of imaging techniques and equipment, development of advanced detection systems, testing of product performance, and optimal lab design.
Biomedical Engineers specialize in a variety of functional areas, including bioinstrumentation, biomechanics, biomaterials, clinical engineering, medical imaging, rehabilitation engineering and systems physiology. The following specialties are integral to, and interdependent with, each other. All combine engineering principles and methodologies in solving medical challenges.
Bioinstrumentation involves use of engineering principles and methods, including computers, in developing devices for diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Biomechanics applies principles of mechanics to understand and simulate medical problems and systems such as fluid transport and range of motion. Prosthetic organs such as artificial hearts, kidneys, and joints are examples of devices developed by biomechanical engineers.
Biomaterials involves development of natural living tissue and artificial materials for use in the human body. Choice of materials with appropriate properties is critical to design of functional organs, bones and other implantable materials, which may include alloys, ceramics, polymers and composites.
Clinical Engineering involves development and maintenance of computer databases, inventorying medical equipment and instruments as well as purchase of medical equipment used in hospitals. Clinical engineers may work with physicians to customize equipment to the explicit needs of the hospital or medical procedure.
Medical Imaging combines electronic data processing, analysis and display with understanding of physical phenomena to identify and characterize health problems such as tumors, malformations and the like. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound and other techniques are commonly used.
Rehabilitation Engineering focuses on enhancing the independence, capabilities and quality of life of individuals with physical impairments. This specialty may involve development of customized solutions to address highly specific needs of individuals.
Systems Physiology focuses on understanding – at the microscopic and submicroscopic levels – how systems within living organisms function, from pharmaceutical drug response to metabolic systems and disease response, voluntary limb movements to skin healing and auditory physiology. This specialty involves experimentation and modeling using mathematical formulations.
Biomedical Engineers have developed many important techniques and equipment. Among these1 are:
Hip joint replacement
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Arthroscopic instrumentation for diagnostic and surgical purposes
Time-release drug delivery
Artificial articulated joints
1Thanks to The Whitaker Foundation for the contents of this list.
Biomedical Engineering is extremely attractive to women as a degree program and career. Women earn a greater percentage of college degrees in Biomedical Engineering than any other engineering discipline, according to the American Society for Engineering education. Among those earning B.S. degrees in biomedical engineering, 39% were awarded to women in 2000; at the master’s level, 34% of biomedical degrees awarded went to women; and at the doctoral level, 32% of biomedical engineering degrees awarded went to women.
The attractions for many women are: the flexibility and inherent creativity of the discipline relative to other engineering areas; the ability to work in a profession that strives to improve the quality of people’s lives; the existing critical mass of women in medical professions; and the integration of biological sciences.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics2, Biomedical Engineers have excellent job prospects and earning potential in coming years. A 2013 report stated:
Biomedical engineers held about 20,000 jobs in 2012. Manufacturing industries employed 36 percent of all biomedical engineers, primarily in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing and medical instruments and supplies industries. Many others worked for hospitals. Some also worked for government agencies or as independent consultants.
Employment of biomedical engineers is expected to grow much faster than average for all occupations through 2022. The aging of the population and the focus on health issues will increase the demand for better medical devices and equipment designed by biomedical engineers. For example, computer-assisted surgery and molecular, cellular, and tissue engineering are being more heavily researched and are developing rapidly. In addition, the rehabilitation and orthopedic engineering specialties are growing quickly, increasing the need for biomedical engineers. Along with the demand for more sophisticated medical equipment and procedures is an increased concern for cost efficiency and effectiveness that also will boost demand for biomedical engineers. However, because of the growing interest in this field, the number of degrees granted in biomedical engineering has increased greatly, leading to the potential for competition for jobs.
Median annual earnings of biomedical engineers were $86,960 in 2012. The middle 50 percent earned between $59,420 and $98,830. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $52,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $139,450.