In the late seventies, medical electronics was a pretty tough business. I remember doubtfully fingering a huge rather primitive heart pacemaker for some (presumably) live patient, designed at our engineering school, while Christiaan Barnard, the heart surgeon, gave a brief (we were but mere engineering students) but passionate lecture on the importance of medicine and technology in improving the quality of life (but not prolonging it unnecessarily).

The number one growth job
The New York Times recently hailed biomedical engineering as the number one growth job for the coming decade (a projected 72% growth rate over the decade). It has now become a defined field of engineering of its own. Obviously, this is growth off a small base, so this doesn’t suddenly mean tens of thousands of engineering jobs. But this is compared to the traditional fields of engineering which have more cautious growth of a few percent (unless of course, you are in the resource rich countries such as Australia, Canada and South Africa, where any engineering professional is in ferocious demand).

A marriage between medicine and engineering
Biomedical engineering is a bridge across medical and engineering disciplines, with an emphasis on engineering. These engineers, technologists and technicians design, build and maintain critical devices such as artificial limbs, organs and new generation imaging machines. They also work in improving processes such as genomic (to do with genes) testing and manufacturing drugs. The mind boggles at the incredible range of products that the human body needs.

Obviously, two of the key drivers for growth in biomedical engineering is the rapid development of medical technology and the aging population demanding high quality healthcare (with somewhat growing healthcare systems). In addition, the growth in pharmaceutical and genetic engineering industries are driving this increased need for biomedical engineering professionals.

We need education 
The emphasis in biomedical engineering education is on maths, chemistry, physics, engineering and naturally biology. Perhaps, the emphasis on maths and the sciences is off-putting to many potential students. An understanding of the human body and how engineering can be effectively applied in this rather challenging area is vital. Surprisingly, biomedical engineers enjoy a broader education than other engineering specialities and have become known as generalists working in a wide variety of jobs from design, manufacturing to managing projects (medical devices) and getting products to market.

Tough encounters of the medical kind
One tough challenge in working in biomedical engineering, I know from personal encounters in this area, is that getting approval for sales of any manufactured devices in the medical area is fiendishly difficult. And many aspiring (perhaps high quality) medical products have fallen by the wayside due to the incredibly expensive, complex and intricate approvals required. After all, it is for the human body and one’s health is absolute paramount. Approval to sell a product in one country definitely doesn’t mean approval in any other country. The need to comply with the numerous medical standards is driven by the constant stream of bad news about injuries and death caused by supposedly suspect products, services and medicines.

Industrial IT and communications also fast growing
Interestingly, the other hot job growth area is in network systems and data communications with growth of 53% projected over the upcoming decade (and a massive chunk of an additional 156,000 jobs in the USA alone) due to the rapid growth in cloud computing, mobile networking technologies, tablets, smartphones and the list goes on. One can (reasonably) safely assume this will mean the associated engineering world with industrial IT and industrial data communications will grow in a similar way. But this growth will come as no surprise to most of working in engineering who see the incredible impact of IT on everything we do (both good and bad!).

So my suggestions on biomedical engineering are:
• Read up as much as possible about this incredibly fast growing field
• Look for chances to incorporate your know-how, products, services and technology into the medical field. Every field of engineering can make a contribution to biomedical engineering as it is a brilliant amalgam of so many fields of engineering – electrical/electronics/mechanical/chemical/Industrial IT/civil……
• The entrepreneurial prospects (and risks) for products and services in biomedical engineering are huge

Obviously, the emphasis on engineering should always be on delivering real results and avoiding what Martin Henry Fischer refers to: ‘Half of the modern drugs could well be thrown out of the window, except that the birds might eat them’.

References are from the New York Times April 13, 2011 (‘Top 10 List: Where the Jobs are’) and John R. Platt of the IEEE; with thanks.

Yours in engineering learning