What is a Biomedical Engineer?
The field of engineering as a whole is an innovative field - coming up with ideas leading to everything from skyscrapers and automobiles, to aerospace and sonar. The field of biomedical engineering narrows its focus to innovating advances that improve human health and health care at all levels. A biomedical engineer is someone who analyzes and designs solutions to problems in biology and medicine, with the goal of improving the quality and effectiveness of patient care.
There is an increasing demand for biomedical engineers, due largely because of the general shift towards the everyday use of machinery and technology in all aspects of life. Biological knowledge combined with engineering principles to address medical needs has greatly contributed to the development of both life-changing and life-saving concepts and products such as: artificial organs; pacemakers; artificial hips; surgical robots; advanced prosthetics; and kidney dialysis. There are now even more futuristic technologies available such as stem cell engineering and the 3-D printing of biological organs.
Aspects of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and engineering are all intertwined with human biology in biomedical engineering to improve human health. There are sub-disciplines within biomedical engineering that focus on specific aspects, such as the design and development of active and passive medical devices, orthopaedic implants, medical imaging, biomedical signal processing, tissue and stem cell engineering, and clinical engineering. You can find biomedical engineers working in manufacturing, universities, hospitals, research facilities, and government regulatory agencies.
What does a Biomedical Engineer do?
Biomedical engineering (BME) takes engineering principles and design concepts and combines those principles and concepts with medicine and biology. By closing the gap between engineering and medicine (combining design and problem solving skills with medical biological sciences), this field of work attempts to advance both diagnostic and therapeutic health care treatment. Biomedical engineering applications can be seen in the development of biocompatible prostheses, a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic medical devices (these devices can range from clinical equipment to micro-implants), MRIs, EKGs, ECGs, pharmaceutical drugs, and therapeutic biologicals.
Also included under the umbrella of biomedical engineer is the keeping of current medical equipment in hospitals within current industry standards. This may include periodic testing, maintenance, new equipment recommendations and acquisitions, and even equipment disposal. This work is often done by a biomedical equipment technician (BMET).
Biomedical engineering is now considered a field in itself (it is no longer an interdisciplinary specialization) and has recently emerged as its own study in engineering. It covers a variety of subfields and consists of much research and development work.
A biomedical engineer will typically do the following:
- Design systems and products, such as artificial organs, artificial devices that replace body parts, and machines for diagnosing medical problems
- Install, adjust, maintain, repair, or provide technical support for biomedical equipment
- Evaluate the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of biomedical equipment
- Train clinicians and other personnel on the proper use of equipment
- Work with life scientists, chemists, and medical scientists to research the engineering aspects within the biological systems of humans and animals
A biomedical engineer may design instruments, devices, and software, bringing together knowledge from many technical sources to develop new procedures, or conduct research needed to solve clinical problems. They often serve a coordinating function, using their background in both engineering and medicine. In industry, they may create products where an in-depth understanding of living systems and technology is essential. They frequently work in research and development or in quality assurance.
Some biomedical engineers design electrical circuits, software to run medical equipment, or computer simulations to test new drug therapies. Some also design and build artificial body parts to replace injured limbs. In some cases, they develop the materials needed to make the replacement body parts. They also design rehabilitative exercise equipment.
The work of these engineers spans many professional fields. For example, although their expertise is based in engineering and biology, they often design computer software to run complicated instruments, such as three-dimensional x-ray machines. Alternatively, many of these engineers use their knowledge of chemistry and biology to develop new drug therapies. Others draw heavily on mathematics and statistics to build models, in order to understand the signals transmitted by the brain or heart. Some specialty areas within biomedical engineering include: bioinstrumentation; biomaterials; biomechanics; cellular, tissue, and genetic engineering; clinical engineering; medical imaging; orthopedic surgery; rehabilitation engineering; and systems physiology. Some biomedical engineers prefer to stay in academia and become professors.
What is the workplace of a Biomedical Engineer like?
A biomedical engineer can work in a variety of settings, depending on what they do. Some work in hospitals where therapy occurs, and others work in laboratories doing research. Still others work in manufacturing settings where they design biomedical engineering products. Additionally, these engineers also work in commercial offices where they make or support business decisions.
Biomedical engineers work with patients and in teams with other professionals. Thus, where and how they work are often determined by others’ specific needs. For example, a biomedical engineer who has developed a new device designed to help a person with a disability to walk again might have to spend hours in a hospital to determine whether the device works as planned. If the engineer finds a way to improve the device, the engineer might have to then return to the manufacturer to help alter the manufacturing process to improve the design.
What are the specialty areas within biomedical engineering?
The following are examples of specialty areas within the field of biomedical engineering:
Bioinstrumentation is an application of biomedical engineering and is a new and upcoming field (electrical engineering and computer science are also related to bioinstrumentation). The majority of innovations within bioinstrumentation have taken place within the past two decades.
This specialty focuses on treating diseases and bringing together the engineering and medical worlds. It uses electronics, computer science, and measurement principles to develop devices, instruments, and mechanics used in the diagnosis and treatment of medical problems and biological systems. This specialty is also focused on using multiple sensors to keep a close eye on physiological characteristics of a human or an animal (bioinstrumentation was first developed by NASA during early space missions to understand how humans were affected by space travel). The sensors convert signals found within the body into electrical signals.
Presently, with over 40,000 health and fitness tracking apps available on our smartphones and wrist-worn fitness tracking devices measuring our heart rate and oxygen levels, bioinstrumentation has also been assimilated into our everyday lives.
As a science, biomaterials is about fifty years old (the study of biomaterials is called biomaterials science or biomaterials engineering), and encompasses elements of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering, and materials science. Biomaterials is the study of naturally occurring or laboratory-designed materials that are used in medical devices or as implantation materials.
Biomaterials can be taken either from nature or synthetically made in a laboratory using metallic components, polymers, ceramics, or composite materials. Biomaterials are often used for medical applications, such as heart valves, or may have more interactive uses, such as hydroxy-apatite coated hip implants. Biomaterials are also used everyday in dental applications, surgery, and drug delivery.
Biomechanics involves the study of mechanics in the structure, function and motion of biological systems. The American Society of Biomechanics says that "biomechanics represents the broad interplay between mechanics and biological systems". This can be at any level - from whole organisms to organs and cells.
Biomechanics is the science of movement of a living body, and studies how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement. Biomechanics includes not only the structure of muscles and bones and the movement they are able to generate, but also the mechanics of blood circulation and other bodily functions. Biomechanics also includes the study of animals, plants, and the mechanical workings of cells. Specialties within biomechanics include: Biological Science; Exercise and Sports Science; Health Sciences; Ergonomics and Human Factors; and Engineering and Applied Science.
A clinical engineer is defined by the ACCE as "a professional who supports and advances patient care by applying engineering and managerial skills to healthcare technology." The difference between a biomedical engineer and a clinical engineer is that a biomedical engineer is generally thought to be someone who works in the primary design of medical devices for manufacturers, or in original research and development, or in academia - whereas a clinical engineer typically works in hospitals solving problems that are very close to where equipment is actually used in a patient care setting.
Clinical engineering is a speciality that applies and implements medical technology in order to improve healthcare delivery. Clinical engineers serve as tech consultants for physicians and administrators, work with governmental regulators on hospital inspections and audits, advise the makers of medical devices regarding design improvements, and redirect hospital acquisitions based on clinical experience. These types of engineers are focused more towards redesigning and reconfiguring, rather than researching and developing. However, they form a useful link between product makers and end-users because they are trained in product and process design but are also familiar with point-of-use.
Rehabilitation engineering is the study of engineering and computer science to design, develop, test, and evaluate devices that assist people who are recovering from or adapting to physical and cognitive disabilities. Rehabilitation engineers develop technological solutions and devices to aid in the recovery of physical and cognitive functions lost because of disease or injury. Individuals with mobility, communication, hearing, vision, and cognition issues, as well as individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, ALS, West Nile, spinal cord injury, brain trauma, or any other debilitating injury or disease can be assisted. Specifically designed devices can help with activities associated with independent living, education, integration into a community, and with employment.
Rehabilitation engineers may observe how individuals perform tasks, and then make changes or accommodations in order to reduce or eliminate future injuries and discomfort. On the opposite side of the spectrum, rehabilitation engineers can help to design and develop intricate brain computer interfaces that have the ability to enable a severely disabled person to use computers and other devices simply by thinking about the function they want to perform.
Ongoing research in rehabilitation engineering has given us some very innovative technologies and techniques that can greatly help people. For example:
Rehabilitation robotics - the use of robots as therapy aids, helping with mobility training for people suffering from impaired movement (such as following a stroke)
Virtual rehabilitation - the use of virtual reality simulation exercises, helping to motivate patients to exercise at home which can be monitored by a therapist over the Internet
Physical prosthetics - the development of smarter artificial legs, exoskeletons, of dextrous upper limbs and hands that better mimic natural limb movement and user intent
Advanced kinematics - the study of human motion, muscle electrophysiology and brain activity to monitor human functions and prevent secondary injuries
Sensory prosthetics - to restore various lost functions and to provide navigation and communication (such as retinal and cochlear implants)
Brain computer interfaces - to help severely impaired people to communicate by using the brain’s electrical impulses to move a computer cursor or a robotic arm that can reach and grab items or send text messages
Modulation of organ function - to act as interventions for urinary and fecal incontinence and sexual disorders, and to treat organ function such as in the case of a spinal cord injury
Systems physiology uses engineering tools to understand how systems within living organisms, from bacteria to humans, function and respond to changes in their environment.
In the context of biomedical engineering, it refers to the use of mathematical, scientific and engineering principles to predict the behaviour of systems (these systems include the entire human body, organs or organ systems, tissues, and medical devices). Biomedical engineering is used to gain an all-inclusive understanding of the function of living systems as well as the interaction of medical devices with these systems. Two examples are: the prediction of glucose in normal and diabetic individuals, and the development of drug releasing skin patches.
Biomedical Engineers are also known as:
Biomedical Technician Biomedical Equipment Technician Biomedical Engineering Technician BioMed Engineer BioMed Technician