Medical Engineering encompasses a broad range of activities, and is alternatively called Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering. It is a multi-disciplinary subject integrating professional engineering activities with a basic medical knowledge of the human body and an understanding of how it functions when healthy, diseased or injured.
Medical Engineers are needed for the healthcare industry, the world's biggest industrial sector, which has a turnover approaching £100 billion per annum and is currently expanding at a rate of 7% per annum. The opportunities for Medical Engineering graduates are enormous and it is one of the few areas of engineering that is expected to continue to grow for many years.
What Type of Course?
The UK is a world leader in Medical Engineering research and manufacture and offers many undergraduate and postgraduate courses. The broad range of activities covered by the subject means that the focus of Medical Engineering degrees can be quite different - there is more variation in course content than in other, more traditional, engineering subjects. Therefore you will need to look carefully at course details before deciding on a programme of study. For example, while most Medical Engineering courses currently have a mechanical or electronic foundation, others may be biased more to materials, physics or biology.
Clearly the course content depends on the bias of the degree. For example, the University of Hull offers a mechanical-based course which has core modules of mechanical engineering and basic medicine, together with specialist modules in biomechanics, biofluids and biomaterials, implant design and artificial organs, rehabilitation engineering, computer and robotic assisted surgery, tissue engineering, physiological measurements, medical imaging and diagnostic techniques, and regulatory issues and medical ethics.
Direct links with local hospitals and preferably a Medical School are essential if the course is to be truly applied and you are to get some clinical experience. These links are also an invaluable source of final year projects, which can then be associated with a particular clinical problem and possibly an individual patient.
In common with most engineering disciplines, team-working, presentation and inter-personal skills are very important for Medical Engineers as they will often be the person bridging the gap between clinicians, patients, sales and marketing, and the manufacturing activities. Medical Engineers are however unique in their systems and integrative approach to problem solving, their ability to carry the results of basic research into the commercial and clinical setting and their ability to function in a multidisciplinary environment.
Job prospects for Medical Engineers are excellent and varied. They can be employed in companies working on the design, development and manufacture of medical devices; in hospitals working with clinical colleagues in providing non-clinical services; in academic or governmental research facilities; and in government regulatory agencies. They can also work as technical advisers for marketing departments.
As a Medical Engineer you will have the opportunity to get involved in a wide range of exciting projects. Hip replacement surgery is now a very common operation, which has brought renewed mobility and reduced pain to millions of people worldwide. Despite its success, there is still a great deal of work being undertaken to improve the performance of artificial hip joints still further, and in particular to extend their lives so they can be used in younger and more active patients. Indeed, replacement joints are now available for most of the articulating joints of the human body. Artificial limbs are also becoming increasingly sophisticated, and a bionic arm has recently been supplied to a patient that has powered finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder movement. Soon these limbs will be controlled directly by muscle and tendon contacts.
And in the future, applications which today might seem unrealistic, are already being developed in research labs around the world. For example, an artificial retina chip has been developed which can be implanted in the eye to replace a damage retina and partly restore lost vision. You will know that it is already possible to restore lost hearing, but electronic circuits are also under development to restore the senses of smell and taste. Similarly, artificial tendons have already been developed and approved for use in patients, and now materials are being developed that respond to electrical currents and behave in a similar way to human muscles.
The efforts of Medical Engineers benefit millions of people every year, and allow healthcare providers to supply better care and treatment to patients through the use of technology. So if you want to follow a career that is dynamic, interesting, exciting and challenging, can directly affect the quality of all our lives, has great employment potential now and in the future, then consider a degree in Medical Engineering.