Without medical specialists and healthcare workers, managing a pandemic and fighting COVID-19 would be impossible. However, their jobs would be much more challenging if it wasn’t for the efforts of another sector: biomedical engineering.
If the role of a healthcare professional is to use their skills and tools to keep people alive, then the role of a biomedical engineer is to build these life-saving tools and develop health-preserving technology. Biomedical engineers support the healthcare and medical sectors in their fight against COVID-19, developing new technologies and helping them prepare for other major health crises, such as potential future pandemics.
What is a Biomedical Engineer?
Once considered an interdisciplinary part of bioengineering, biomedical engineering (BME) emerged as an independent field in response to an ever-rising number of public health challenges, becoming a vast field with many subsets and specializations.
Biomedical engineering is the bridge connecting engineering and medicine. The role of BME is to bring together the problem-solving and technology-developing skills of engineers with the scientific study and understanding of medical scientists to solve healthcare problems with applied solutions.
Therefore, biomedical engineers solve problems specific to healthcare, designing tools, equipment, and other solutions to improve medical treatment, such as diagnosis, monitoring, therapeutic technology, and disease prevention techniques.
The most notable achievements of the biomedical engineering profession include the following:
- Biologically compatible prosthetic limbs
- Artificial organs produced with 3D printers
- Brain-computer interfaces
- Electronic imaging equipment (MRI, EKG, X-Rays, etc.)
- Genome editing (CRISPR)
- Nanomaterials and nanorobotics
- Robot-assisted surgery devices (Robot surgeons)
How Biomedical Engineers Help Fight COVID-19 (and Future Pandemics)
Although bionic limbs, scanners, and gene-editing technology are among the most notable and visible achievements of the biomedical engineering field, their work during pandemics and health crises such as COVID-19 is equally as important, despite being less visible.
If the healthcare worker could be compared to a frontline soldier in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, then the biomedical engineer provides support and oversees the supply chain. They design, source, develop, deliver, and maintain the tools that doctors, nurses, surgeons, and other health professionals use daily. Depending on where they work, the expertise of biomedical engineers is needed in a wide array of sectors, creating various devices, drugs, and equipment to fight the spread of the virus.
For example, a biomedical engineering team assigned to a hospital may be tasked with sourcing vital care equipment, such as ventilators, patient monitors, hospital beds, and other medical devices. They may also need to clean, disinfect, and repair existing equipment.
Engineers working in biomedical laboratories may have a variety of tasks. They may design and write software for the medical equipment used in hospitals, create more efficient personal protective equipment (PPE), or develop new disinfecting agents to combat shortages.
Some may even directly assist in developing and implementing a vaccine, using computer simulations to model viral spread, evaluate the efficiency of potential drugs and treatments, or develop new virus detection tests.
A national survey conducted by Engineering Deans Canada looked at engineering activities specific to the COVID-19 pandemic and preparation for future pandemics. The survey results indicate nearly 300 engineering research projects are in progress at Canadian universities, with engineering professors and students adapting their research to focus on COVID-19 diagnostic, treatment, and tracking solutions.
Although the top priority today is producing new solutions to slow the spread of COVID-19, the skills and techniques learned and the technologies developed can also be used to stop the spread of other infectious diseases. Advances in biomedical engineering help healthcare professionals worldwide address other health crises and equip the world to face potential future pandemics.
The Different Types of Biomedical Engineers
Biomedical engineering is a vast field with many specializations. Each plays a critical role in advancing health technology and solving today’s healthcare problems.
Six of the most critical specializations for combating and preventing current and future pandemics are bioinstrumentation, biomaterials engineering, clinical engineering, bioprocess engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, and telehealth.
Bioinstrumentation, also known as biomedical instrumentation, combines the general principles of computer science and biomedical engineering to create devices capable of measuring and evaluating vital signs and physiological levels. For example, fitness trackers are one of many devices created by bioinstrumentation engineers.
In the context of infectious disease prevention, bioinstrumentation engineers develop drug delivery and administration devices (e.g., pumps) and genetic testing devices capable of detecting viral genetic material (e.g., PCR tests).
Biomaterials engineers study and develop biomaterials, which are substances designed to interact with biological systems. Common examples include artificial tissue used in skin repair and artificial heart valves.
Studies suggest that leveraging biomaterials can help fight the spread of infectious diseases by creating new materials that can boost the immune system’s efficiency, such as synthetic scaffolds or nanoparticles capable of delivering antiviral drugs.
Clinical engineers implement and apply medical technologies in healthcare environments. In other words, they manage and maintain the medical devices employed in hospitals, clinics, and caregiving facilities to diagnose and treat patients.
They are also responsible for designing learning systems, training and educating non-specialized healthcare professionals to use these devices properly.
Bioprocess engineers, also called biochemical engineers, bridge the gap between biological and chemical engineers. The role of this field is to use biological materials to create products that can solve problems in many sectors, from food and agriculture to wastewater treatment.
In the healthcare industry, a bioprocess engineer is directly involved in researching, developing, and manufacturing biopharmaceutical products, including specific types of vaccines (e.g., mRNA COVID-19 vaccines).
Pharmaceutical engineers research, discover, synthesize, develop, and manufacture drugs and medications. It is one of the oldest biomedical engineering fields, dating back to the 19th century and the creation of arsphenamine (Salvarsan), the first mass-produced synthetic medicine.
Pharmaceutical engineers contribute to pandemic treatment and prevention efforts by designing and producing drugs capable of treating diseases or alleviating their symptoms. They also oversee the manufacturing process, addressing mass production and engineering entrepreneurship challenges, ensuring the drugs’ safety and legal compliance.
Telehealth (or telemedicine) allows professionals to use information and communication technologies to provide remote healthcare. Telehealth engineers develop Internet-connected machines and devices and train healthcare workers in their use, allowing them to provide remote consultations and healthcare, from simple diagnoses to robot-assisted surgeries.
Telehealth engineering solutions are vital during a pandemic. They protect both healthcare workers and patients (remote healthcare respects social distancing). They also provide a way for vulnerable or isolated patients to seek diagnosis and treatment without endangering themselves or others.
Join the Ontario Engineering Community With OSPE
If you are an engineering student, intern, or professional looking to network with the engineering community in the Toronto area, join the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers today.
OSPE represents the engineering profession, providing opportunities for graduates and professionals of all backgrounds and specializations such as civil engineers, biomedical engineers, electrical and computer engineers and advocating for governments and authorities using non-partisan, evidence-based principles.