COLUMN: UVic biomedical engineers training for key medical roles

University of Victoria professor trumpets emerging program

Doctors are normally the first people to come to mind when someone mentions a hospital.

However, if you stop to think about the devices present in hospitals, including heart monitors, electric thermometers and implantable hip replacements, the influence of engineers becomes readily apparent. With the rising costs of health care, the demand for biomedical engineers in designing and implementing novel and innovative approaches to medical devices has grown significantly.

In 2011, the New York Times declared biomedical engineering to be the most in-demand job for the following decade. This phenomenon begs the questions: Could engineers one day replace doctors in the health-care system?

The most likely answer to this question is no – doctors must work in collaboration with engineers to achieve improved outcomes in health care. However, these engineers will need specialized training to understand the language and challenges associated in working with patients to improve care.

To address this need, the University of Victoria began offering undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering last fall. The program is the first of its kind in Western Canada, as most schools only offer the ability to obtain a biomedical option as part of another engineering degree program.

Not only does the University of Victoria offer students the ability to obtain a biomedical engineering degree, students can major in mechanical or electrical engineering and complete the biomedical option by taking appropriate courses. The biomed program has been a huge success, with our initial class of 23 highly enthusiastic students making it the second-most popular choice among engineering majors.

One of the defining characteristics of the program is a unique two-course sequence that analyzes cells and organ systems from an engineering perspective. UVic is the only university in Canada to offer such quantitative physiology courses.

The students will also take an engineering design course, specifically focused on medical device design and taught by Nick Dechev, whose own research program focuses on producing prosthetic hands.

UVic has 19 engineering faculty involved with biomedical engineering-related research projects that are prime candidates for collaboration with doctors. These areas include biophotonics, biomechanics, tissue engineering, the analysis of medical images and medical device design.

Additionally, our program takes advantage of local expertise at the Vancouver Island Health Authority and Starfish Medical, a local start-up company that originated out of the University of Victoria. Biomed students also participate in four co-operative education work term placements. Our degree program prepares students for a number of post-graduate options, including working in the medical industry, attending medical school or pursuing further graduate education in biomedical engineering.

Dr. Stephanie Willerth is founding co-ordinator of the undergraduate Biomedical Engineering Program, in the medical sciences division of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Victoria.