What is Biomedical Engineering?

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You may have seen the effect that prosthetics have on people who have lost an arm or a leg, or even the way that the Winter, the dolphin from “Dolphin Tale,” regains her abilities after a fake tale is fashioned for her. These prosthetics are made possible by biomedical engineering, a branch of engineering that encompasses the design of pacemakers, laser surgical procedures, biomaterials, and much more.

In fact, biomedical engineering is technically “the application of engineering principles to the fields of biology and health care” (Live Science). What this means is that biomedical engineers apply their knowledge to the design and development of healthcare technology, materials and processes. In some cases, biomedical engineering not only enhances quality of life, but also saves lives. That there are more than 22,000 people employed in the U.S. in the field, as of 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), may not be surprising, but that the field is expected to grow much faster than average in the coming years may signal a significant opportunity for aspiring engineers.

Why Does the World Need Biomedical Engineering?

In truth, biomedical engineering has been around for some time. Just think of the way that people use canes and crutches to help them get around. This adaptation of technology to help improve the human condition has a long and storied history. In fact, it has been reported that King Tut may even have used orthopedic footwear to help manage what may have been a clubfoot. That usage dates back some 3,300 years, according to Discovery News. The contributions of technology have grown since then, rapidly accelerating since World War II in the United States, and now giving physicians and doctors tools as varied as CT scans and MRI. In fact, the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) lists several modern-day technologies and applications that have come about as a result of biomedical engineering. Some of these include:

  • Artificial organs, like pacemakers, hearing aids, and synthetic blood vessels
  • Computer modeling of bodily systems, such as renal function and blood pressure machines
  • Medical imaging, which includes MRIs, ultrasound, positron emission tomography and more

Other applications for biomedical engineering include biomaterials design, sports medicine, and advanced therapeutic devices. As well, smart technology is becoming a significant player in healthcare, allowing use of real-time analysis to assist doctors and physicians in diagnosing illness, but also in using analytics to assist with provision of care. Some of these capabilities may be present in machines or equipment designed by biomedical engineers.

What Do You Learn in a Biomedical Engineering Program?

A bachelor’s degree is typically the baseline education needed to enter the biomedical engineering field, according to the BLS. The focus of this degree can be on classes that include biomaterials, computer programming, circuit design, and solid and fluid mechanics. Advanced math and electronic classes also are part of a program and might range from Calculus III to Thermodynamics. Other classes that could be taken in a bachelor’s level biomedical engineering program include:

  • Biomaterials
  • Biomedical Models and Simulations
  • Control Systems
  • Probability and Statistics for Engineering
  • Physiology

As part of a biomedical engineering degree, you typically are required to do lab work to enhance your skills and understanding, but also may need to do a senior project and/or an internship. These internship programs can help build connections and synthesize your learning. When choosing a degree program, be sure to look for one that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Graduation from an accredited program may be required prior to seeking a license to practice in certain states or to becoming a licensed professional engineer.

There also are some engineers who go on to pursue advanced education in the form of master’s or doctoral degrees (PhD or even MD). In fact, you can find some bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering that have a pre-med focus.

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Branches of Biomedical Engineering

It could seem that biomedical engineering is a very siloed field, but the truth is that it has many branches, according to the BMES. These may not always seem obvious to the layperson or those just thinking about the field, but some of these branches include:

  • Biomaterials: This is the use of both living tissues and artificial materials for the purpose of implantation. These materials must be non-toxic, meet other criteria and have long-term use to be effective in the body, according to the BMES.
  • Bioinstrumentation: This specialization takes a look at how measurement and electronics affect the field of medical care. An understanding of electronics is important whether it is applied to computers or microprocessors.
  • Neural Engineering: A focus on enhancing, repairing or improving the properties of the neural systems within the body are important in this area of specialization. This includes examining the interface between non-living materials and neural tissue.
  • Rehabilitation Engineering: This particular branch of biomedical engineering deals with improving physical and cognitive human capabilities through engineering. These might range from adaptations in the home to prosthetics to cognitive aids.

There are many other areas of focus, too, some of which include biomedical electronics, biomechatronics, biomechanics, bionics, bionanotechnology, cellular, tissue and genetic engineering, clinical engineering, medical engineering, orthopedic bioengineering, and systems physiology, reports the BMES. There also are school programs that offer specializations in some of these areas. As an example, the University of Michigan provides three areas of concentration in its biomedical engineering degree, including biochemical, bioelectrical and biomechanical.

The Present and Future of Biomedical Engineering

By 2024, more than 5,000 new biomedical engineering positions should open up in the U.S., according to the BLS. These biomedical engineering careers are expected to have strong growth in the U.S. for a number of reasons. One primary factor is the growing use of technology in applications related to healthcare, particularly through the use of smartphones and other smart technology. Another factor, according to the BLS, is the aging Baby Boomer population that will drive more demand for biomedical procedures, such as hip and knee surgery and replacement. Other applications for biomedical engineering remain undiscovered, but with advances in technology, and an influx of highly educated engineers entering the field, these future applications will surely begin to emerge.

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