What Is Biomedical Engineering? Impact and More

Written by Coursera • Updated on

If you’re looking for a profession that uses engineering to make a positive impact on others’ lives, consider a career in biomedical engineering. Read on to learn more about this exciting field.

[Feature image] Biomedical engineers examine slides through microscope

Biomedical engineers have designed some of the most important medical devices used today – from pulse-regulating pacemakers to easy-to-use blood glucose monitors. 

Whether you’re interested in joining the field because you want to save lives or simply because you’re fascinated by the challenging problems it's faced with, a career in biomedical engineering offers the opportunity to make a real impact in the world. In this article, you’ll learn more about what biomedical engineering is, what biomedical engineers do, and their salary and job outlook. You’ll also learn about how to become one and find some suggested courses you can take to get started. 

Biomedical engineering explained

Biomedical engineering is the application of engineering principles to solve health and health care problems. Using their knowledge of engineering, viology, and health care, biomedical engineers design medical equipment and processes that improve human health outcomes. Common examples of biomedical equipment used every day include pacemakers, blood glucose monitors, and artificial limbs.

Bioengineering vs biomedical engineering

Although they sound similar and share much in common, biomedical engineering is not exactly the same as bioengineering. 

In simplest terms, bioengineering refers to the general application of engineering practices to biological systems such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and health care. Biomedical engineering, meanwhile, is a specialized subset of bioengineering strictly focused on the application of engineering practices for health care purposes by designing medical devices and developing processes to improve health outcomes. 

What do biomedical engineers do? 

Biomedical engineers use their knowledge of engineering to create medical devices, equipment, and processes to heal, treat, or improve health conditions. While the exact duties a biomedical engineer performs day to day vary from project to project, some of the most common responsibilities include: 

  • Design medical devices, such as pacemakers or artificial limbs 

  • Repair and install medical devices and equipment 

  • Conduct original research into existing biomedical devices and biological processes 

  • Train medical professionals in the use of new medical equipment 

A Brief History of Pacemakers

Although the use of electricity to restart hearts had been observed sporadically by medical professionals and researchers for hundreds of years, the first artificial pacemakers were not invented until the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

In 1928, Australian anesthesiologist Mark Lidwell used intermittent electrical stimulation to restart a child’s heart born in cardiac arrest. Later, in 1932, the American Physiologist Albert Hyman developed a spring-wound hand-cranked motor that used electrical impulses to restart hearts. He called his device an “artificial pacemaker,” a term that is still used to this day. 

Unfortunately, Hyman’s device was not welcomed by the medical community, which viewed it simply as a “gadget” rather than a serious medical tool.  

The early 1950s saw the rise of large, external pacemakers that needed to be plugged into wall sockets and wheeled around on racks to be transported. By 1957, however, the first wearable battery-operated, wearable pacemaker was invented by Earl E. Bakken. The invention is regarded by many experts as starting the field of “medical electronics,” a precursor to modern biomedical engineering. 

Just one year later in 1958, Ake Senning and Rune Elmqvist in Sweden developed the first implantable pacemaker in Sweden. Fitting for such a device, the pacemaker was implanted in a 43-year-old engineer named Arne Larsson [1]. 

From ridiculed fringe science to mainstream medical marvel, the pacemaker has gone through many iterations over the decades – and saved countless lives as a result. All thanks to early biomedical engineers. 

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Biomedical engineering: salary and job outlook

Their unique skill set means that biomedical engineers are well-compensated and much sought after. Here, you’ll learn more about what biomedical engineers earn and their job outlook for the foreseeable future. 

Salary

Biomedical engineers make a higher than average salary. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bioengineers and biomedical engineers made a median annual salary of $97,410 as of May 2021 [2]. Glassdoor, meanwhile, puts the average annual pay for biomedical engineers at $102, 612 per year [3]. 

Job outlook

Over the next decade, those hoping to enter the biomedical engineering field can expect average job growth. According to the US BLS, the number of job openings for both bioengineers and biomedical engineers is expected to grow by six percent between 2020 and 2030 with an average 1,400 new jobs opening up each year [2].

How to get started in biomedical engineering 

Biomedical engineers use their knowledge of engineering to solve problems in biology and medicine.  

1. Obtain a degree. 

In order to become a biomedical engineer, you will need to have a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, bioengineering, biomedical science, or a related field such as mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. In some cases,  an employer might prefer or even require applicants to possess a graduate degree in biomedical engineering or a related field [2]. 

2. Gain the right skills.

To solve some of the most important medical problems plaguing people today, you’ll need to use a wide variety of both technical and human skills every day. Here are some of the skills biomedical engineers use in their day-to-day work: 

  • Engineering 

  • Statistics 

  • Math 

  • Computer science 

  • Collaboration 

  • Problem solving 

  • Team work 

As you’re looking to start your own career, consider the skills you might want to develop to ensure that you do the best job possible. 

Read more:What Are Job Skills and Why Do They Matter?

3. Get experience.

One of the best ways to gain a foothold in a new career is to gain relevant work experience. If you’re just starting out, then you might consider obtaining a relevant internship or entry-level position to practice your skills in the real world. 

According to the US BLS, the top five most common employers of biomedical engineers are as follows [2]: 

Employer% of overall employment
Medical equipment and supplies manufacturing16
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences16
Healthcare and social assistance9
Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing8
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private7

Explore engineering and health care 

To join the ranks of professional biomedical engineers working at the forefront of science and technology to solve some of the most complex health care problems, you’ll need to develop a unique combination of skills and knowledge. 

Deeplearning.Ai’s AI for Medicine Specialization equips course takers with practical experience in applying machine learning to concrete problems in medicine, such as diagnosing diseases and predicting survival rates.

The Systems Biology and Biotechnology Specialization by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, meanwhile, covers the concepts and methodologies used in systems-level analysis of biomedical systems.

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Article sources

1. NIH. “A brief history of cardiac pacing, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3232561/.” Accessed July 27, 2022. 

2. BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Bioengineers and Biomedical Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/biomedical-engineers.htm.” Accessed July 22, 2022. 

3. Glassdoor. “How much does a Biomedical Engineer make?, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-biomedical-engineer-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,22.htm?clickSource=searchBtn.” Accessed July 26, 2022.

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