Designing a healthier world

Designing a healthier world

Enumerating the key areas within biomedical engineering, S B Kulkarni establishes the variety of options this emerging field has opened up.

What kind of career do you imagine for yourself? Doctor? Lawyer? Scientist? Engineer?  Teacher?  CEO?  Manager?  Salesperson……….? A university degree in biomedical engineering will prepare you for all of these professions and more. Biomedical engineers use their expertise in biology, medicine, physics, mathematics, engineering science and communication to make the world a healthier place. The challenges posed by the diversity and complexity of living systems require creative, knowledgeable, and imaginative people working in teams of physicians, scientists and engineers, restore and enhance normal body function. The biomedical engineer is ideally trained to work at the intersection of science, medicine and mathematics to solve biological and medical problems.

What do biomedical engineers do?

Biomedical engineers work in industry, academic institutions, hospitals and government agencies. They spend their days designing electrical circuits and computer software for medical instrumentation. These instruments may range from large imaging systems such as conventional x-ray, computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging, to small implantable devices, such as pacemakers, cochlear implants and drug infusion pumps.

They use chemistry, physics, mathematical models and computer simulation to develop new drug therapy. Indeed a considerable number of the advances in understanding how the body functions and how biological systems work have been made by biomedical engineers. They use mathematical models and statistics to study many of the signals generated by organs like brain, heart and skeletal muscle. Some biomedical engineers build artificial organs, limbs, knees, hips, heart valves and dental implants to replace lost function. The development of artificial body parts requires that biomedical engineers use chemistry and physics to develop durable materials that are compatible with a biological environment.

Biomedical engineers develop wireless technology that will allow patients and doctors to communicate over long distances. They are involved in rehabilitation – designing better walkers, exercise equipment, robots and therapeutic devices to improve human performance. They solve problems at the cellular and molecular level, developing nanotechnology and micro machines to repair damage inside the cell and alter gene function. They also work to develop three-dimensional simulations that apply physical laws to the movements of tissues and fluids. The resulting models can be invaluable in understanding how tissue and prosthetic replacement works.

Difference from other engineers

Biomedical engineers integrate biology and medicine with engineering skills to solve problems related to living systems. They need to have a solid foundation in a more traditional engineering discipline, like electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering. Most undergraduate biomedical engineering programs require students to take a core curriculum of traditional engineering courses. However, they are expected to integrate their engineering skills with their understanding of the complexity of biological systems in order to improve medical practice. Thus, they must be trained in the life sciences as well.

Educational qualifications

A biomedical engineering degree typically requires a minimum of four years of university education. Following this, the biomedical engineer may get an entry level engineering position in a medical device company and a clinical engineering position in a hospital.

A Master’s or Doctoral degree offers the biomedical engineer greater opportunities in research and development in an industrial, academic or government setting. Some biomedical engineers choose to enhance their education by pursuing a graduate degree in business, eventually to help run a business or manage health care technology for a hospital.

Design is crucial to most biomedical engineering activities. To design, biomedical engineers must have a solid foundation in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering skills, and humanities. Although the biomedical engineering curriculum varies from university to university, they comprise of some key areas.
Most of the engineering and science courses incorporate laboratory experience to provide students with hands-on, real-world applications.

Key areas of biomedical engineering

* Bioinformatics involves developing and using computer tools to collect and analyze data related to medicine and biology.

*  Bio-micro-electro-mechanical systems (BioMEMS) are the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics on a silicon chip.

*  Biomaterials are substances that are engineered for use in devices or implants that must interact with living tissue.

*  Biomechanics is mechanics applied to biology and includes the study of motion, material deformation, and fluid flow.

* Biosignal Processing involves extracting useful information from biological signals for diagnostics and therapeutics purposes. This could mean studying cardiac signals to determine whether or not a patient will be susceptible to sudden cardiac death.

*  Clinical engineers support and advance patient care by applying engineering and managerial skills to healthcare technology. Clinical engineers can be based in hospitals, where responsibilities can include managing the hospital’s medical equipment systems, ensuring that all medical equipment is safe and effective, and working with physicians to adapt instrumentation to meet the specific needs of the physician and the hospital.

In industry, clinical engineers can work in medical product development, from product design to sales and support, to ensure that new products meet the demands of medical practice.

*  Imaging and Image Processing X-rays, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computerized tomography (CT) are among the imaging methods that are used to let us “see” inside the human body. This applies advances in multimedia computing systems in a biomedical context.

*  Information Technology in biomedicine covers a diverse range of applications and technologies, including the use of virtual reality in medical applications (eg. diagnostic procedures), the application of wireless and mobile technologies in health care settings, artificial intelligence to aid diagnostics, and addressing security issues associated with making health care information available on the World Wide Web.

*  Instrumentation, Sensors, and Measurement involve the hardware and software design of devices and systems used to measure biological signals.

*  Microtechnology involves development and use of devices on the scale of a micrometer, while nanotechnology involves devices on the order of a nanometer.

* Artificial neural networks is an emerging interdisciplinary field that involves study of the brain and nervous system and encompasses areas such as the replacement or restoration of lost sensory and motor abilities, the study of the complexities of neural systems in nature, the development of neurorobots and neuro-electronics.

* Physiological Systems modeling develops models of physiological processes to gain a better understanding of the function of living organisms.

*  Radiology refers to the use of radioactive substances such as x-ray, magnetic fields as in magnetic resonance imaging, and ultrasound to create images of the body, its organs and structures.

*  Rehabilitation Engineering is the application of science and technology to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

* Robotics in Surgery includes the use of robotic and image processing systems to interactively assist a medical team both in planning and executing a surgery.

* Telemedicine involves the transfer of electronic medical data from one location to another for the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of patients in remote locations, using advanced telecommunications technology, video-conferencing systems, and networked computing.

The field of biomedical engineering now enjoys the services of many organizations collaborating to improve the lives of people around the world. This is an emerging field with a lot of open options. 

(The writer is the head of the department of Biomedical Engineering at a College  in Belgaum)

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