Biomedical engineering, as the name suggests, is taking engineering skills, knowledge and principles and applying them for use in the fields of biology, medicine, and healthcare. When you think about it, any invention that’s had a positive impact on treating sickness or injury falls under the scope of biomedical engineering. Although technology has come a long way since the dark ages, you could consider the first person who had the idea of using a stick to help themselves walk as a biomedical engineer.
While we’ve well and truly moved on from using wood for splints and walking sticks, the principles remain the same – engineering new and better ways to diagnose and treat injuries, disease and disabilities. As technology advances, so too does our ability to improve existing clinical practices which are likely to touch almost every human being’s life in one way or another.
If you’ve ever had surgery, been to hospital, or even visited a doctor, it’s likely you’ve been exposed to the end result of a biomedical engineer’s work. Here are just a few examples of the life-changing innovations from the field of biomedical engineering.
This example of biomedical engineering dates back to the late 1800s and has been built upon ever since. The science behind x-ray machines has uses in other fields, but in a medical sense, it’s now an extremely common form of medical imaging, used to identify everything from broken bones to pneumonia and bowel obstructions. It’s also become standard practice for dentists to use x-ray machines when identifying cavities and other oral health issues. As a non-invasive way of diagnosing medical problems, x-ray machines have had an enormous impact on the world of healthcare.
Nanotechnology is a field we are constantly learning more about, and researchers are discovering new uses for it every day. In simple terms, it refers to creating something the size of 100 nanometres or smaller, which, for those not scientifically minded means extremely small. While this research is relatively new, some of the goals in this area include creating particles, which when introduced to the human body can attach themselves to diseased cells and administer chemotherapy drugs at a cellular level without damaging healthy cells. It is hoped that nanotechnology revolutionises the treatment of cancer.
Electrocardiographs are commonly known as ECG or EKG machines. Like x-ray machines, the science at play here is over a century old, however, advancements have continually been made to reach the medical equipment we know today. Medical practitioners use electrocardiographs to detect heart issues such as chest pain or irregular heartbeats. According to the Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease was linked to over 43,000 deaths in Australia in 2017 alone1, so this example of biomedical engineering has an extremely important role to play in saving and enhancing people’s lives.
A direct result of biomedical engineering, surgical robots have changed the way many surgeries are performed. From the early stages of doctors manually controlling robotic arms, we are now seeing many surgeries being completed entirely by robots remotely controlled by surgeons. One of the main benefits is the precision with which machines can perform incisions, resulting in more accuracy and less trauma. Ultimately this means better recovery for patients and less chance of infection. While it might seem like something out of a science fiction film, many believe that with further developments of this technology we will see robots able to carry out surgeries autonomously.
With origins as far back as 1957, this revolutionary progression of the hearing aid was commericalised by Cochlear, an Australian company in 1978. These devices operate with one component generally worn behind the ear to capture sounds and send them to an implant inside the ear which receives signals to the cochlear nerve, effectively creating electric hearing. The Cochlear implant helps hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have severe to profound hearing loss and may not benefit from traditional hearing aid technology.
Another widely known and used technology, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, was developed in the 1970s. This is a perfect example of biomedical engineering being developed, improved upon, and adopted for daily use in hospitals and surgeries around the world. MRI is used for diagnosing issues of both physical and psychological nature, such as brain tumours, strokes, infections and spinal injuries. It’s also favoured by doctors for following up a patient’s progress after surgery or treatment because unlike x-rays there is no risk of side effects associated with radiation.
Ultrasound has an enormous range of uses in the modern world. In a biomedical sense, the technology has been developed to allow ultrasound imaging which many would associate with being used during pregnancy. It has a number of other practical uses too, such as being able to view muscles, tendons and other internal organs in real time, and at higher levels, ultrasound can be used to increase the effect of drugs in targeted areas of the body.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in biomedical engineering, the main thing you will need is a degree in engineering, majoring in biomedical engineering. Universities will have different entry requirements for these degrees, so if you’re still in secondary education and considering this career, it’s worth checking what you need to get into the course of your choice. Such is the nature of the study, it’s recommended you’re achieving good results in English, mathematics, chemistry and physics.
On a more personal side, attention to detail and accuracy is a huge component of the work, so you need to understand the importance of precision in engineering. The industry is also constantly evolving, so you’ll need to keep up with new technology, processes and ideas to get the best out of your work. On top of that, biomedical engineering is all about new ideas or improving current ones – so you’re going to want to have a creative mind.