(Published in 1999 by the Biomedical Engineering Society)
What is a Biomedical Engineer?
A Biomedical Engineer uses traditional engineering expertise to analyze and solve problems in biology and medicine, providing an overall enhancement of health care. Students choose the biomedical engineering field to be of service to people, to partake of the excitement of working with living systems, and to apply advanced technology to the complex problems of medical care.
The biomedical engineer works with other health care professionals including physicians, nurses, therapists and technicians. Biomedical engineers may be called upon in a wide range of capacities: to design instruments, devices, and software, to bring together knowledge from many technical sources to develop new procedures, or to conduct research needed to solve clinical problems.
What are Some of the Specialty Areas?
In this field there is continual change and creation of new areas due to rapid advancement in technology; however, some of the well established specialty areas within the field of biomedical engineering are: bioinstrumentation; biomaterials; biomechanics; cellular, tissue and genetic engineering; clinical engineering; medical imaging; orthopaedic surgery; rehabilitation engineering; and systems physiology.
These specialty areas frequently depend on each other. Often, the biomedical engineer who works in an applied field will use knowledge gathered by biomedical engineers working in other areas. For example, the design of an artificial hip is greatly aided by studies on anatomy, bone biomechanics, gait analysis, and biomaterial compatibility. The forces that are applied to the hip can be considered in the design and material selection for the prosthesis. Similarly, the design of systems to electrically stimulate paralyzed muscle to move in a controlled way uses knowledge of the behavior of the human musculoskeletal system. The selection of appropriate materials used in these devices falls within the realm of the biomaterials engineer.
Examples of Specific Activities
Work done by biomedical engineers may include a wide range of activities such as:
Where do Biomedical Engineers Work?
Biomedical engineers are employed in universities, in industry, in hospitals, in research facilities of educational and medical institutions, in teaching, and in government regulatory agencies. They often serve a coordinating or interfacing function, using their background in both the engineering and medical fields. In industry, they may create designs where an in-depth understanding of living systems and of technology is essential. They may be involved in performance testing of new or proposed products. Government positions often involve product testing and safety, as well as establishing safety standards for devices. In the hospital, the biomedical engineer may provide advice on the selection and use of medical equipment, as well as supervising its performance testing and maintenance. They may also build customized devices for special health care or research needs. In research institutions, biomedical engineers supervise laboratories and equipment, and participate in or direct research activities in collaboration with other researchers with such backgrounds as medicine, physiology, and nursing. Some biomedical engineers are technical advisors for marketing departments of companies and some are in management positions.
Some biomedical engineers also have advanced training in other fields. For example, many biomedical engineers also have an M.D. degree, thereby combining an understanding of advanced technology with direct patient care or clinical research.
What Does the Future Demand Look Like for Biomedical Engineers?The United States Department of Labor reports that “the number of biomedical engineering jobs will increase by 31.4 percent through 2010---double the rate for all other jobs combined.” Overall job growth in this field will average 15.2% through the end of the decade. The U.S. Department of Labor report attributed the rapid rise in biomedical engineering jobs in part to an aging U.S. population and the increasing demand for improved medical devices and systems. Specific growth areas cited in the report included computer-assisted surgery, cellular and tissue engineering, rehabilitation, and orthopedic engineering.
How Should I Prepare for a Career in Biomedical Engineering?
The biomedical engineering student should first plan to become a good engineer who then acquires a working understanding of the life sciences and terminology. Good communication skills are also important, because the biomedical engineer provides a vital link with professionals having medical, technical, and other backgrounds.
High school preparation for biomedical engineering is the same as that for any other engineering discipline, except that life science course work should also be included. If possible, Advanced Placement courses in these areas would be helpful. At the college level, the student usually selects engineering as a field of study, then chooses a discipline concentration within engineering. Some students will major in biomedical engineering, while others may major in chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineering with a specialty in biomedical engineering. As career plans develop, the student should seek advice on the degree of specialization and the educational levels appropriate to his or her goals and interests. Information on sources of financial aid for education and training should also be sought. Many students continue their education in graduate school where they obtain valuable biomedical research experience at the Masters or Doctoral level. When entering the job market, the graduate should be able to point to well defined engineering skills for application to the biomedical field, with some project or in-the-field experience in biomedical engineering.
How Do I Select a Biomedical Engineering Academic Program?
There is no easy answer to this question, but potential biomedical engineering students can begin their search by first looking into programs in their own state or region. Due to the growth of academic programs in this profession, many individuals can find a good program nearby.
One question to consider is the philosophy or focus of the academic program. Some programs emphasize research while others may emphasize more design projects with an orientation toward industrial careers. Students should ask about the curriculum as well as the placement experience of recent graduates.
Biomedical Engineering Programs Offer BS, BA, BSE, and BE Undergraduate Degrees. What is the Difference Between the Various Degrees Offered in this Field?The different degree names offered in biomedical engineering reflect more a preference of the academic institution rather than any substantive difference in the curriculum or academic credential. Each of these degrees has essentially the same value as an academic credential aside from the reputation of the biomedical engineering program and the university.
How Important is ABET Accreditation?
Another issue to consider is accreditation. Accreditation is a process involving conformity assurance by an independent review body verifying that academic programs or institutions have met agreed upon standards of quality and performance in a specific profession. The American Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) is the official accreditation body for biomedical engineering programs in the United States. A current list of accredited undergraduate programs can always be found at the ABET web site, www.abet.org. Prospective students can review ABET accreditation criteria and determine whether they want to limit their search to accredited programs.
Accreditation is always desirable in any academic program geared toward training professionals. Also, current licensure requirements require graduation from an accredited program as a prerequisite requirement for the Professional Engineer (PE) license. It should be noted however, that licensure issues are currently not as important in biomedical engineering as they are in other areas such as civil engineering where permits and legal documents require signatures from a PE. The importance of licensure for Biomedical Engineers could, however, become more important in the future.
What are Some Little Known Facts About Biomedical Engineering?
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