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Industry focus – biomedical engineering

E&T takes a look at the biomedical engineering sector: what are the best routes into this industry for young engineers, the most sought-after skills and the biggest employers.

Biomedical engineering involves applying engineering principles to biology, medicine and healthcare to solve problems. It is a fast-growing area of engineering and individuals would typically find themselves working in health services, the medical devices industry or research. 

While its fragmented nature makes it difficult to quantify the overall biomedical engineering sector in terms of number of people employed and its worth, the global medical devices market alone is estimated to be worth US$381bn, according to medical market research company Kalorama. 

The US government’s Accountability Office says that America accounts for around 45 per cent of the global market, with Global Medical Device Regulatory Consultancy Emergo stating that the UK market – valued at $9.5bn in 2015 – is the third largest in Europe, behind Germany and France, and the sixth largest in the world. 

When surveying the sector, it is also important to factor in the growing digital healthcare market. This is expected to be worth $233.3bn by 2020 (up from $60.8bn in 2013), with Asia-Pacific predicted as a key region.

What’s happening in biomedical engineering?

Biomedical engineering provides an opportunity for engineers and technologists to use their skills to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing human life. You could be the person instrumental in coming up with a solution to address a global health challenge or create a piece of apparatus that could change the world for an individual. The sector spans everything from mobile devices to hospital scanners. 

Professor Panicos Kyriacou, associate dean Research and Enterprise and director, Research Centre for Biomedical Engineering (RCBE) at City, University of London, explains that the sector has grown “exponentially” over the past two decades.

“It is all to do with the expanding appetite to create more and more solutions for healthcare to cure disease and help society and people,” he says. “Some of my graduates have found themselves working in research organisations and institutions looking at cardiovascular disease, diabetes or neurodegenerative diseases.” 

Biomedical engineers could also find themselves working at the leading edge of areas such as robotics, sensor and imaging technology, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, big data and mobile. Adam Gibson, professor of medical physics and biomedical engineering at UCL, which has one of the largest departments for medical physics and biomedical engineering in the UK, also highlights the growing area of ‘personal medicine’ or ‘ubiquitous healthcare’. This could include using a person’s mobile phone to help monitor breathing or heart rate, their diabetes or even recovery after surgery. 

“It’s giving people more responsibility for their own healthcare, which for many people is a good thing but you still need to have the clinical support there,” he says.

“Getting those healthcare devices is an engineering problem but figuring out how best to get them working in a real-life setting with real people is more of social science/psychology problem. So it’s a really interesting area.”

What qualifications should I be looking at?

Kyriacou, who is also president-elect of the European Alliance of Medical and Biological Engineering and vice-president (Academia) of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM), explains that historically, electronics, electrical or mechanical engineers – or indeed medics and physicians – might become interested in biomedical engineering in the latter part of their undergraduate degree or for as a master’s qualification.

“But growth in the sector meant higher education institutions realised there is a whole new area that requires people to become professional and acquire knowledge early on so it led to the offspring of biomedical engineering degrees for undergraduates as well as postgraduates.”

A number of UK universities offer dedicated bachelor and master’s biomedical engineering degrees. UCL offers the MEng as a fourth-year option to its bachelor’s degree but says it is looking at creating an MSc course as well. Another possible route is through a medical physics degree or master’s qualification. 

“For example, there is nothing to stop an electrical engineer graduate using the medical physics master’s as a conversion,” says Gibson. “There isn’t a word that means physics and engineering so you always have to separate it out. In our department, physicists and engineers sit on same bench. The term encourages you to think there is a difference between biomedical engineering and medical physics whereas actually the difference is quite tenuous.” 

Who and where are my potential employers?

The NHS employs biomedical engineers and the route in is via its graduate entry three-year Scientist Training Programme, which consists of work-based and academic learning. To apply you need a 1st or 2:1 honours degree in a pure or applied science area relevant to the specialism you are interested in. 

As well as health services, the other two main areas a biomedical engineer would work are the medical devices industry or a research organisation/institution. The former comprises large corporations but also SME and spinout companies. The US devices industry is bigger than the UK and is home to major players such as Beckman Coulter, GE Healthcare Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Stryker Corporation.

That said, there is some great innovation coming out of UK SMEs as well as university spinouts. The UK has several prominent research universities/organisations including RCBE, Brunel Institute for Bioengineering and Designability – Bath Institute of Medical Engineering. 

How do I increase my chances of getting a job?

The growth in dedicated courses means biomedical engineering is likely to become an increasingly competitive field. Kyriacou also points out that even those with dedicated qualifications will find themselves competing with engineers from other disciplines. 

Being flexible over location will certainly expand your horizons in areas such as medical devices. And as well as technical knowledge, you need to be an effective team player. In a hospital, you could find yourself working with a diversity of experience and people, Kyriacou explains. 

“From clinicians and nurses through to patients,” he says. “It’s a challenge but also a blessing to be able to contribute to society in this way.” 

Professor Gibson agrees that a broad skillset is required. 

“We are trying to produce numerate, problem-solving graduates but who can also bring an understanding of the human dimension of a problem,” he says. “Students are trained to deal with complicated quantitative problems but also with people. And they are typically motivated by wanting to make a difference.”

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