Biomedical engineering (BME) is the application of engineering principles and techniques to the medical field. It combines the design and problem solving skills of engineering with medical and biological sciences to help improve patient health care and the quality of life of individuals.
As a relatively new discipline, much of the work in biomedical engineering consists of research and development, covering an array of fields: bioinformatics, medical imaging, image processing, physiological signal processing, biomechanics, biomaterials and bioengineering, systems analysis, 3-D modeling, etc. Examples of concrete applications of biomedical engineering are the development and manufacture of biocompatible prostheses, medical devices, diagnostic devices and imaging equipment such as MRIs and EEGs, and pharmaceutical drugs.
Biomedical engineering is an interdisciplinary field, influenced by various fields and sources. Due to the extreme diversity, it is typical for a biomedical engineer to focus on a particular emphasis within this field. There are many different taxonomic breakdowns of BME, one such listing defines the aspects of the field as such:
In other cases, disciplines within BME are broken down based on the closest association to another, more established engineering field, which typically include:
Clinical engineering is a branch of biomedical engineering related to the operation of medical equipment in a hospital setting. The tasks of a clinical engineer are typically the acquisition and management of medical device inventory, supervising biomedical engineering technicians (BMETs), ensuring that safety and regulatory issues are taken into consideration and serving as a technological consultant for any issues in a hospital where medical devices are concerned. Clinical engineers work closely with the IT department and medical physicists.
A typical biomedical engineering department does the corrective and preventive maintenance on the medical devices used by the hospital, except for those covered by a warranty or maintenance agreement with an external company. All newly acquired equipment is also fully tested. That is, every line of software is executed, or every possible setting is exercised and verified. Most devices are intentionally simplified in some way to make the testing process less expensive, yet accurate. Many biomedical devices need to be sterilized. This creates a unique set of problems, since most sterilization techniques can cause damage to machinery and materials. Most medical devices are either inherently safe, or have added devices and systems so that they can sense their failure and shut down into an unusable, thus very safe state. A typical, basic requirement is that no single failure should cause the therapy to become unsafe at any point during its life-cycle. See safety engineering for a discussion of the procedures used to design safe systems.
A medical device is intended for use in:
Some examples include pacemakers, infusion pumps, the heart-lung machine, dialysis machines, artificial organs, implants, artificial limbs, corrective lenses, cochlear implants, ocular prosthetics, facial prosthetics, somato prosthetics, and dental implants.
Stereolithography is a practical example on how medical modeling can be used to create physical objects. Beyond modeling organs and the human body, emerging engineering techniques are also currently used in the research and development of new devices for innovative therapies, treatments, patient monitoring, and early diagnosis of complex diseases.
Medical devices can be regulated and classified (in the US) as shown below:
Regulatory issues are never far from the mind of a biomedical engineer. To satisfy safety regulations, most biomedical systems must have documentation to show that they were managed, designed, built, tested, delivered, and used according to a planned, approved process. This is thought to increase the quality and safety of diagnostics and therapies by reducing the likelihood that needed steps can be accidentally omitted again.
In the United States, biomedical engineers may operate under two different regulatory frameworks. Clinical devices and technologies are generally governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a similar fashion to pharmaceuticals. Biomedical engineers may also develop devices and technologies for consumer use, such as physical therapy devices, which may be governed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. See US FDA 510(k) documentation process for the US government registry of biomedical devices. Other countries typically have their own mechanisms for regulation. In Europe, for example, the actual decision about whether a device is suitable is made by the prescribing doctor, and the regulations are to assure that the device operates as expected. Thus in Europe, the governments license certifying agencies, which are for-profit. Technical committees of leading engineers write recommendations which incorporate public comments and are adopted as regulations by the European Union. These recommendations vary by the type of device, and specify tests for safety and efficacy. Once a prototype has passed the tests at a certification lab, and that model is being constructed under the control of a certified quality system, the device is entitled to bear a CE mark, indicating that the device is believed to be safe and reliable when used as directed.
The different regulatory arrangements sometimes result in technologies being developed first for either the U.S. or in Europe depending on the more favorable form of regulation. Most safety-certification systems give equivalent results when applied diligently. Frequently, once one such system is satisfied, satisfying the other requires only paperwork.
Biomedical engineers combine sound knowledge of engineering and biological science, and therefore tend to have a bachelors of science and advanced degrees from major universities, who are now improving their biomedical engineering curriculum because interest in the field is increasing. Many colleges of engineering now have a biomedical engineering program or department from the undergraduate to the doctoral level. Traditionally, biomedical engineering has been an interdisciplinary field to specialize in after completing an undergraduate degree in a more traditional discipline of engineering or science, the reason for this being the requirement for biomedical engineers to be equally knowledgeable in engineering and the biological sciences. However, undergraduate programs of study combining these two fields of knowledge are becoming more widespread, including programs for a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering. As such, many students also pursue an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering as a foundation for a continuing education in medical school. Though the number of biomedical engineers is currently low (as of 2004, under 10,000 in the U.S.), the number is expected to rise as modern medicine and technology improves.
In the U.S., an increasing number of undergraduate programs are also becoming recognized by ABET as accredited bioengineering/biomedical engineering programs. Over 40 programs are currently accredited by ABET.
As with many degrees, the reputation and ranking of a program may factor into the desirability of a degree holder for either employment or graduate admission. The reputation of many undergraduate degrees are also linked to the institution's graduate or research programs, which have some tangible factors for rating, such as research funding and volume, publications and citations.
Graduate education is also an important aspect in BME. Although many engineering professions do not require graduate level training, BME professions often recommend or require them. Since many BME professions often involve scientific research, such as in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, graduate education may be highly desirable as undergraduate degrees typically do not provide substantial research training and experience.
Graduate programs in BME, like in other scientific fields, are highly varied and particular programs may emphasize certain aspects within the field. They may also feature extensive collaborative efforts with programs in other fields, owing again to the interdisciplinary nature of BME.
Education in BME also varies greatly around the world. By virtue of its extensive biotechnology sector, numerous major universities, and few internal barriers, the U.S. has progressed a great deal in the development of BME education and training. Europe, which also has a large biotechnology sector and an impressive education system, has encountered trouble in creating uniform standards as the European community attempts to bring down some of the national barriers that exist. Recently, initiatives such as BIOMEDEA have sprung up to develop BME-related education and professional standards. Other countries, such as Australia, are recognizing and moving to correct deficiencies in their BME education. Also, as high technology endeavors are usually marks of developed nations, some areas of the world are prone to slower development in education, including in BME.
As BME is an emerging field, professional certifications are not as standard and uniform as they are for other engineering fields. For example, the Fundamentals of Engineering exam in the U.S. does not include a biomedical engineering section, though it does cover biology. Biomedical engineers often simply possess a university degree as their qualification. However, some countries, such as Australia, do regulate biomedical engineers, however registration is typically only recommended and not required.