In 2014, WHO stated: “trained and qualified biomedical engineering professionals are required to design, evaluate, regulate, maintain and manage medical devices, and train on their safe use in health systems around the world”1.
In response, the European Economic and Social Committee stated: “Biomedical Engineering is not simply a subset of modern medicine. Modern medicine predominantly secures important advances through the use of the products of biomedical engineering”2.
With this document as a start, two Euro-Parliamentarian Members, Dr Lara Comi and Dr Nicola Caputo, tabled two parliamentary questions asking why, different to the USA, the Horizon 2020 vision does not have a dedicated space for BME and why BME is not listed among the professions that the European Commission officially recognises. The European Commission answered that biomedical engineering is crucial in addressing many of the challenges found in the programme. So, what is happening? Why all this interest around the field of BME over the last few months? The answer is not easy to arrive at, but we can attempt it. BME represents one of those cases in which Academic research is perfectly aligned to manufacturing visions and missions, and both are supporting healthcare innovations that are directly impacting the wellbeing of European Citizens and increasing National healthcare systems and services cost-effectiveness. This chain is working so well that WHO is also benefiting from this. For instance, the initiatives that have seen the International Federation of Medical and BME, IFMBE, which is the world’s most important scientific society for BME and also an ONG officially recognised by the UN, supporting WHO on specific projects aiming to build capacities in low-income countries or to promote innovation making more affordable medical devices, are countless.
However, let us take a step back in order to understand better the context. BME is a key sector for European competitiveness. It presents a €100 billion-market size. In Europe, 20,000 companies work in this sector. This equates to 575,000 jobs and in terms of innovation, this is the first sector in patent applications – 10,412 – in 2012. Those numbers are growing very fast and the BME sector is becoming of strategic interest to Europe and other developed countries. For instance, the CNN reported in 2014 that BME was the first job in the USA for impact, growth and future prospects3. On the other hand, 90% of companies producing medical devices are SMEs and the product lifecycle is very short (18 months circa) making the time from research to the assessment to the adoption very short in comparison to other healthcare technologies (i.e. drugs). This is creating new challenges for the European Union that require a strong synergy between all the stakeholders and a proactive reaction from each actor.
What are the challenges for BME? The fact that the lifecycle of its main products, medical devices, is so short is one of the most significant challenges. Apart from inventing the future, BMEs are also called to invent how to sell it, proposing new business models that make sustainable the cycle of innovation and marketing, especially in the field of ICT for healthcare. Another huge challenge, very specific to BME, is that we do design technologies that are required, assessed, acquired and utilised by people other than engineers. If you design aircraft, you will most probably follow the specifications given by an engineer and your innovations will be assessed, acquired and even piloted by someone with the same background as yours. This means that they have been educated using the same language as the one you have been educated to, and most probably they will use this language to give you their specifications. If you work in medicine or biology, you will face that even the specification and the commissioning of new system requisites may require outstanding empathy, apart from a solid scientific basis and experience. Additionally, if you are a BME, you will mainly work in multi-disciplinary teams. You may work one day with a cardiologist and the day after with a neurologist, and you will need to understand as much as them about a cardiac cycle, Krebs cycle and mirror neurons, in order to understand deeply where your innovation can maximise your impact.
However, it does not matter how many years you have spent alternating books of physiology with those of electronics and computer science, at this moment the only opportunity you have, if you are trying to apply for a grant, is to select “other engineering” when you have to describe your field. From the Academic perspective, a BME’s community is continuously monitoring the evolutions of the relevant markets. For instance, two European Projects in the past years contributed to the harmonization of BME curricula in Europe: Biomedea and INTERREG CRH-BME.
In answer to these challenges, and considering the results of those projects, the Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine (WEB) group at the School of Engineering, the University of Warwick, have launched a new MSc programme in Biomedical Engineering. This one year programme takes into account the interdisciplinarity of the field and provides students with targeted modules addressing the needs of industry, healthcare providers and Academia. It covers classic topics of BME (i.e. biomedical signal processing, imaging, biological system dynamic modelling, biomechanics, tissue engineering, clinical engineering and health technologies design, system medicine) but also topics that are not traditionally delivered as part of BME degrees such as health technology assessment, procurement and management. This is important as BMEs graduating at Warwick have a concrete feeling of the complexity of the BME field and are never naïve to the challenges that an innovation has to face to move from the lab to the market. The design of this innovative Masters degree has been possible as WEB brings together the research expertise of more than 20 biomedical engineering academics and researchers working in very different areas of BME and coming from very different professional experiences, not to mention Nations and continents. In fact, walking in the corridors of the School of Engineering, and particularly in the new building dedicated to WEB, students can engage with key figures within the main scientific international organisations on BME in UK, Europe and Worldwide, which practice an open door policy. This includes the IEEE EMBS; the International Federation of Medical and Biological Engineering (IFMBE); and the European Alliance for Medical and Biological Engineering and Sciences (EAMBES).
Prof Christopher James, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, IEEE EMBS ADCOM (Europe Representative), IEEE EMBS UKRI Chair, IEEE Spokesperson in Europe for Healthcare Technology, Director of Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine. Dr Leandro Pecchia, Assistant Prof of Biomedical Engineering, Chairman of the Health Technology Assessment Division of the International Federation of Medical and Biological Engineering (IFMBE), Chairman of the Public Affairs Working Group of the European Alliance for Medical and Biological Engineering and Sciences (EAMBES).
1 WHO web site, last access 26th of October 2015,http://www.who.int/medical_devices/support/en/
2 EUR-LEX, 2015/C 291/07: EUR-LEX, 2015/C 291/07, “Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Promoting the European single market combining biomedical engineering with the medical and care services industry”, Rapporteur: Edgardo Maria IOZIA, Co-rapporteur: Dirk JARRÉ
3 CNN Money, last access 27th of October 2015, http://money.cnn.com/pf/best-jobs/2013/snapshots/1.html
Lead, Applied Biomedical Signal Processing and Intelligent eHealth Lab
Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine (WEB)
School of Engineering, University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)24 7652 8193