The Rewards of Biomedical Engineering

Among the many professions to benefit from the aging of the Baby Boomers are biomedical engineers. These engineers design and build the myriad medical devices and healthcare equipment in such demand these days, as computer-assisted surgery, orthopedic engineering, cellular and tissue engineering, and much else are called on to treat an older, fatter, and less fit population.

As one sign of the field's popularity, the U.S. Department of Labor (Washington, D.C.) saw fit for the first time this year to list biomedical engineering as a profession in its biannual Occupational Outlook Handbook. What's more, the handbook was optimistic about employment prospects, predicting a greater-than-average increase in the number of jobs-31.4 percent over the next 10 years-and more than three times the overall engineering job growth rate of 9.4 percent.

In 2000, the handbook states, there were about 7200 biomedical engineers working in the United States. About one in five of them worked in manufacturing, where they develop diagnostic instruments, implantable devices, and medical informatics and imaging systems. About the same number worked in healthcare services, where a range of jobs exist. Clinical engineers procure and maintain instruments for hospitals, while engineers at health insurance companies conduct research that helps determine reimbursement schemes for medical devices. Some also consult or work for doctors' offices or medical laboratories.

Combining biology and medicine with engineering, the discipline solves health-related problems by developing electrocardiograms and pacemakers for heart disease, for instance, and radiation technology for treating cancer. Biotechnology, the use of biological processes to solve problems or make products, is also attracting biomedical engineers.

Electronics and the heart

Because heart disease is widespread in the U.S. population, the market for cardiology devices, and thus for the engineers who design them, is especially hot, according to Robert Gold, who watches healthcare equipment companies for Standard and Poor's (New York, N.Y.), the financial analysis firm. Such devices include diagnostic monitors to measure the heart's electrical activity (electrocardiographs) and blood flow (echocardiographs), as well as systems to analyze gases in the blood. Devices like pacemakers and defibrillators help the heart to steady its beat, while lasers and other instruments are used for heart surgery.

Some cardiology devices now act as both vital signs monitors and therapies, allowing doctors to monitor a patient's health remotely. Pacemaker makers, such as Biotronik (Berlin, Germany) and Medtronic Inc. (Minneapolis, Minn.), recently gained approval for implanted pacemakers and defibrillators that give periodic reports to doctors about a patient's condition. Biotronik's unit wirelessly transmits information about the patient's condition to a portable cell-phone-like device. That device then uploads the data to the doctor, alerting her to any signs of decline in the patient's health.

A variety of companies develop and manufacture cardiology instruments. At one end are electronics titans like Siemens AG (Munich, Germany) and General Electric Co. (Fairfield, Conn.), which over the years have diversified into the medical realm. Siemens got into the business in the 1960s, when it purchased Elema-Schönander AB, a Swedish company whose claim to fame included the first implantable pacemaker and first portable electrocardiogram. Today, Siemens tends to focus on integrated hospital systems that include imaging equipment, user-friendly software, surgical devices, and reconfigurable examination tables. Siemens and General Electric are both marketing complete catheterization laboratories to hospitals.

Then there are more specialized companies like Guidant Corp. (Indianapolis, Ind.). Established in 1994 and recently named one of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, it has about 10 000 employees and develops cardiovascular medical products. Guidant recently won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Rockville, Md.) for an implantable device that can detect and correct abnormal and life-threatening heart rhythms.

Much of the development, whether for a small device or a larger system, requires a team that includes experts from medicine, the sciences, and engineering. Electrical engineers who work in this interdisciplinary area typically need skills in computer-aided design, the design of analog and digital signal processors, and failure analysis and hardware and software verification.

Better ways to fight cancer

Technology for detecting and treating cancer is another growing area for biomedical engineers. It's estimated that about half of U.S. cancer patients undergo some sort of radiation treatment, and the push now is to look for ways to decrease the treatment's toxicity while boosting its effectiveness. Among the advances that have already been made are linear accelerators that generate higher-energy radiation beams, and more versatile patient tables that enable radiation doses to be delivered to the tumor from a variety of angles and directions. Beam-shaping devices have also been designed to help technicians direct the radiation more precisely.

Better imaging technologies have also led to better cancer care [see "Not Your Mother's Mammography," IEEE Spectrum, October 2002, pp.56?57]. Computed tomography, positron-emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, CT-MRI fusion images, and virtual 3-D imaging have entered the mainstream, so that malignant tissue is detected earlier and targeted more accurately with drugs, radiation, or surgery.

Just as in cardiology, large electronics companies as well as smaller firms employ electrical and electronics engineers to develop oncology devices. Tyco International, Siemens, and General Electric are among the big players. Siemens, for example, has introduced a system that integrates an accelerator and a computed tomography scanner with a moveable table to irradiate inoperable tumors. U.S. Surgical (Norwalk, Conn.), a Tyco subsidiary, specializes in laparoscopes and other surgical supplies.

Careerwise, one draw of the larger companies is that they offer engineers more managerial opportunities. A product manager in Siemen's Electromedical Group, for instance, is responsible for writing the specifications for patient-monitoring equipment; he or she also works with marketing and software engineers to develop new products and assists in developing better user interfaces.

Positions for engineers also exist in niche companies like Calypso Medical Technologies Inc., a Seattle-based start-up that is working on cancer surgery technology. Though the company gives out few details about its technology, it was awarded a U.S. patent for a system that brackets tumors with gamma-ray-emitting markers detectable by a probe and detector, the better to see the tissue during surgery. The engineering skills Calypso requires include analog and digital circuit design and verification, testing of power distribution and system-wide performance, and ensuring compliance of devices with government standards.

What to study

EE undergraduates who are considering this field have two options: they can find an entry-level position in industry or get a graduate degree in biomedical engineering or a related area (many industry positions do require at least a master's). There are over 100 graduate-level programs in the United States and Canada, and the course work tends to be very interdisciplinary. Subjects covered include cardiovascular dynamics, neuroscience and engineering, biomedical imaging, modeling and computing, and artificial organs.

Ideally, though, one should start with a solid grounding in basic science and engineering, advises Rick Bunch, an engineer who is a product manager for Zymark Corp. (Hopkinton, Mass.), makes lab automation equipment used in the drug discovery process. "Stick to the classics," he says. "You've got to have the background before deciding what you want to be."

Mike Belobraydich, a principal electrical engineer at PerkinElmer Inc. (Wellesley, Mass.), a manufacturer of instrument-based systems and software for research and medicine, agrees: "Understanding the bigger picture gives a person a huge leg up." Besides just a practical knowledge of electronics, he adds, it's essential to be able to listen and communicate effectively.

To Probe Further

The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook-Biomedical Engineers is available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site.

The Whitaker Foundation (Arlington, Va.), which awards grants for research and education in biomedical engineering at academic institutions in the United States and Canada, has a wealth of information about the field, including a list of programs that offer graduate degrees, on its Web site.

Barbara Nasto is a science writer based in the New York City area.

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