A biomedical engineer is a professional who develops procedures and devices to solve health or medical problems and improve various aspects of the healthcare industry. Individuals in this field of engineering apply their knowledge of medicine, biology, engineering and biomechanical principles to the design, development, testing and analysis of health/biological products and systems. Some of the applications that biomedical engineers design, develop and test are imaging instruments such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalogram) machines, therapeutic biological products, tissue regeneration, pharmaceutical drugs, instruments used to control and replace body parts (artificial organs, pacemakers, biocompatible prostheses), and more. They can also be involved with the development of health and medical information management and care delivery systems.
Biomedical engineering (BME) has only recently started to become regarded as its own discipline instead of a hybrid specialization of other disciplines. BME programs at all levels of education are gaining popularity and prevalence. Given the large scope of work they can be involved with, it is clear that a biomedical engineer should have a solid technical/technological background as well as sound knowledge of the fields of biological sciences, health systems and medicine.
Job Description and Outlook
A biomedical engineer’s job description (in the general sense) is to apply their knowledge of science, technology and engineering to the healthcare industry with the goal of improving the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of the healthcare system, more specifically diagnosis, monitoring and therapy. They design and analyze applications (devices, instruments and software) that help solve problems in medicine and biology. They can work on projects that involve modelling and simulating the effects of new drugs, therapies or entire biological systems, creating software that operates medical equipment or designing electrical circuits. Sometimes they develop the base materials that are used in artificial limbs and organs.
Their work spans a number of industries and professions. While their educational background is primarily in biology and engineering, they must also have a working knowledge of computer hardware and software design, electric circuits, chemistry and mechanical systems in order to develop applications such as 3D imaging machines, artificial body parts and drug therapies. Thanks to this wide range of expertise, they often take on the role of project coordinator. They can work with manufacturers, scientists, physicians and researchers to solve medical problems. This ability enables them to develop products and systems for a wide range of applications.
Here is a short list of common duties and responsibilities:
- Create and test products and systems such as artificial body parts (limbs, organs) and machines that diagnose medical problems (CT, MRI)
- Research, model and simulate biological systems with other medical, life and chemical scientists
- Conduct safety, effectiveness, diagnostic and efficiency tests on biomedical (lab, imaging, therapeutic) equipment
- Install, repair and maintain biomedical equipment
- Train technicians and clinicians how to properly use the equipment
There are a wide variety of sub disciplines within the field of biomedical engineering that one can specialize in. Some of these include: biomechanics, biomedical electronics, bioinstrumentation, biomaterials, biomechatronics, clinical engineering, medical imaging, bionics, neural engineering, rehabilitation, orthopaedic bioengineering, genetic, tissue and cellular engineering.
Due to an aging baby-boom generation, the demand for biomedical engineers is projected to increase rapidly over the next decade or so. The trend of seniors leading longer, healthier and more active lives is expected to be a major factor in the increasing demand for biomedical procedures and devices such as knee and hip replacements and MRI and EEG scans. As the public learns about these applications and technological advances, increasing numbers of individuals will want to use them to improve their quality of health.
Approximately 16,590 individuals are currently working as biomedical engineers in the United States. Biomedical engineers are typically employed by companies that manufacture medical equipment, organizations that conduct research in this area as well as by health services departments. They typically work in quality assurance or research and development. The job market for the occupation is predicted to grow by 62% from 2010 to 2020. This might seem like huge growth, but due to the relatively small size of the field, 62% growth works out to 9,700 new jobs during this decade. The demand for the expertise of a biomedical engineer will also increase thanks to the variety of projects they can be involved with as well as their diverse educational background.
Constant technological advances and research breakthroughs will continue to shape and shift the field of BME and the knowledge and skills that engineers working in the field are required to have. Entire areas of research will be created or antiquated in the coming years and many people say that the field as a whole is still in its infancy. Overall, the expanding range of activities in which they are engaged and the growing demand for their expertise will translate into quite favorable job opportunities.
Training and Education Requirements
To become a biomedical engineer, you need a 4 year bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from an accredited engineering program. These programs include a variety of courses from both engineering and biological sciences such as circuit design, solid and fluid mechanics, physiology, biomaterials and computer programming. Another way to enter the career is to get a bachelor’s degree in a different engineering discipline and then either work as a trainee under a professional biomedical engineer or get a graduate degree in BME. The graduate programs available in the field include both Master’s and Doctoral degrees. Over the past few years biomedical engineering has emerged as a disciple of its own and there are an increasing number of colleges and universities that offer BME degrees. In most cases, students wanting to become a BME take courses in other disciplines such as mechanical, electrical and computer engineering so they can fully understand and be able to contribute to multidisciplinary projects.
There are two advantages to pursuing a graduate degree over only completing a bachelor’s degree. The first is is that individuals with graduate degrees earn a higher salary (on average). The second is due to the fact that many of the jobs in the field are in research and development, there are usually a number of job opportunities that are only available to those with a Master’s or Doctorate degree. In some cases, engineers decide to return to school to pursue a graduate degree after getting some work experience. Throughout their careers, they must continuously update themselves on the new developments in the field by attending seminars, taking courses and reading industry publications.
High school students planning to attend college or university for BME should take all the science and courses they can (chemistry, biology, physics and calculus) as well as any technical courses that are available such as computer programming or mechanical drawing/drafting.
Due to the high level of expertise, skill and education required and the relatively small supply of biomed engineer graduates, the salary of a biomedical engineer is often quite attractive. Even though the field is growing rapidly, competition for jobs can be quite high in some areas. The Medical Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing industry is the biggest employer of biomedical engineers and the following states have the highest levels of employment: California (3,900), Massachusetts (1,550), Texas (1,440) and Minnesota (960). The states with the highest average salaries for the occupation are: California ($99,650), Virginia ($97,870), Minnesota ($97,330) and Massachusetts ($96,760). As is the case for almost all occupations, the salary depends on various factors like the location of work, amount and type of experience, the complexity/level of responsibility the position requires and what organization/institution they are employed by.
The average salary for a biomedical engineer working in the United States is $88,360 according to the report provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2011. This evens out to an average hourly wage of $42.48. The salaries reported were ranged from $51,380 (10th percentile) to $134,150 (90th percentile). The top three highest paying sectors were said to be (in order):
• Computer Systems Design and Related Services – $99,960 per year (employs 330)
• Scientific Research and Development Services – $98,080 per year (employs 3,110)
• Management of Companies and Enterprises – $95,350 per year (employs 350)
And the following are the industries that employ the highest number of individuals:
• Medical Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing – $86,280 per year (employs 3,830)
• Scientific Research and Development Services – $98,080 per year (employs 3,110)
• Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing – $89,860 per year (employs 2,640)
Salary by Years Experience (United States)
According to the salary statistics found on payscale.com, an average biomedical engineer’s salary ranges from $39,989 to $97,475 (these figures include bonuses and profit sharing). The pay statistics were collected from 489 professional biomedical engineers, most of whom had worked in the field for anywhere between 1-4 years. The average salary reported is approximately $66,000.