Biomedical and Health Informatics: Future Prospects for the Field and for Our Students

It is now common knowledge that BME is one of the fastest growing job markets percentagewise [1]. Still, this job market is relatively small at fewer than 20,000 U.S. jobs, so even a large percentage increase is minor compared to the market for computer scientists (with the number of jobs estimated at 3,578,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012) and electrical, electronic, and computer engineers (>400,000 jobs, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012), which proj­ect lower growth percentages but larger absolute numbers. Many biomedical engineering students, particularly those nearing graduation, ask which flavor of BME has the best job prospects, especially given the rapid percentage growth in BME graduates. Unfortunately, statistics are woefully inadequate to address this question in a meaningful way.

Fortunately, however, we can report on at least one sector of the BME job market that is measurably enjoying significant growth: biomedical and health informatics. I wrote in an earlier “President’s Message” that biomedical and health informatics comes in many flavors [2]. Here, I emphasize the subset known as health information technology (IT).

To get directly to the punch line, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011 predicted a 20% annual growth in health care IT [2]. Furthermore, online postings of health care IT jobs have grown 200% from 2009 to 2012—from 4,850 to 14,512 per month [3]. By comparison, all health care industry job postings in the United States grew by 52% over the same three years [5].

Interpreted simply, each month, the health IT sector is creating a number of jobs roughly equal to the total number of BME jobs, substantially outpacing the growth of health care jobs in general. Obviously, there is only partial overlap between jobs that are considered health IT versus BME. Furthermore, many such health IT jobs does not require BME degrees, such as biomedical data entry. However, this clearly represents the sign of a very healthy and growing industry, where a wide spectrum of jobs is created to service the breadth of activity involved. The reader might think of the breadth of jobs in the electronics industry, e.g., which range from engineering to sales to clerical.

Overall, however, the conclusion is clear: There is tremendous growth in opportunities for biomedical engineers who have IT skills in the health IT industry. What has brought about this explosion of opportunity? I repeat from my previous column [2]: The ongoing revolution in the broad area of information, electronics, communications, computation, and Internet technology brings tremendous opportunities across the United States and the world. As biomedicine is nearly 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product, health IT is also likely to be 20% of the IT industry in the United States.

Another feature of this expansion that I find to be remarkable is that the pace of innovation in IT greatly exceeds the pace of biomedical innovation. In less than the time typically taken from the submission of a grant to the National Institutes of Health to the publishing of clinical trial data, the world has seen the introduction of YouTube, the iPhone, Android, and the iPad, each of which is having a tremendous indirect impact on medicine, even if almost completely unregulated. Furthermore, soon this technology base could easily lead to an expansion of the number of biomedical sensors to tens of billions, with tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities for biomedically savvy information engineers.

The marketplace for IT-oriented biomedical engineers is strong and growing, ranging from the mundane and controlled—secure biomedical information systems and client billing—to a Wild West of physiological monitors for everything from exercise to diet to diabetes and much, much more.

It’s a great time to be a biomedical engineer—especially in health IT.

http://pulse.embs.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2014/04/WheelerEMBSslides.pdf

Acknowledgments

I gratefully acknowledge the help of Dr. Edward Shortliffe, Dr. May Wang, and Dr. Metin Akay, whose presentations and organization at the U.S.–Turkey Advanced Study Institute on Global Healthcare Grand Challenges were most helpful.

References

  1. Best jobs in America. [Online].
  2. B. Wheeler, “The many flavors of bio, medical, and health informatics,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 8–9, July 2013.
  3. Lucus Mearian. Healthcare industry leads market in IT hiring. [Online].
  4. ONC Data Brief. [Online].
  5. William Riley. (2012, Jan. 12–13). Research challenges in measuring data for population health to enable predictive modeling for improving healthcare. Talk at NSF Workshop Population Health, Washington, DC. [Online].