Biomedical Engineering Education “Down Under”: the Australian Experience

This year, IEEE Pulse is taking a closer look at biomedical engineering (BME) education around the world. We began our discussion in our March/April issue with Jennifer Berglund’s pieces on BME education in the United States (see “The Great Divide” and “The Real World.”) This month, we look at biomedical engineering education in Australia. 

In recent years throughout Australia, academic programs in biomedical engineering (BME) have continued to grow in number. In Australia’s largest city alone, the University of Sydney offers a four-year bachelors program in BME aiming to soon graduate some 100 biomedical engineers annually, whilst the University of Technology, Sydney, has recently introduced a biomedical engineering major option within its four-year engineering degree. Both of these are in addition to the long-standing master’s level concurrent BME programs at the University of New South Wales. Elsewhere in Australia, BME programs are taught at the University of Melbourne, RMIT, Swinburne, Flinders, La Trobe, the University of Queensland, and Queensland’s University of Technology. Monash University also offers a five-year bachelor of biomedical science and bachelor of engineering dual-degree program, and other Australian universities offer programs in the related disciplines of biotechnology and biomedical science.

This rapid growth could be considered healthy for the future of BME in Australia, however the total market for biomedical engineering professionals in the nation continues to remain small, with Australia’s global share in medical device, medical imaging, and patient monitoring technologies comprising 2% of the global market.[1] In Sydney for example, the leading biomedical engineering industries are ResMed and Cochlear, two Australian-founded multi-national medical device companies who employ a small number of biomedical engineering graduates annually. Australia-wide there are some 500 medical device companies, most of which are small businesses employing only a handful of staff. However, such companies typically seek to employ engineers with specialized experience in more traditional disciplines such as electronics, material science, mechanical or chemical engineering, as opposed to those with a broad biomedical engineering education.  This places BME graduates from concurrent and dual programs in a more competitive position, given that these graduates have qualifications in a fundamental engineering discipline.

Since 2012, representatives from a number of Australasian universities have been gathering annually to discuss local issues in BME education, as well as sharing their experiences in teaching various BME programs. In 2014, the meeting took place in Canberra, in conjunction with the Australian Biomedical Engineering conference (ABEC). ABEC is hosted annually by Engineers Australia, the accrediting body for engineers in Australia, through its Biomedical College.[2] This year, a full-day BME teaching workshop was facilitated by Associate Professor David Grayden from the University of Melbourne just prior to the conference, followed by a teaching forum during the conference itself. Workshop participants included academics from several BME departments across Australia, as well as BME-teaching representatives from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) New Zealand, and the National University of Singapore (NUS). Collectively, those BME departments represented at the workshop were graduating a total of about 250 BME students annually, with a further 100 at NUS and 25 at ABI—possibly too many graduates for the currently small Australasian market.

BME teaching programs were also found to vary significantly from those programs providing a more broad-based BME education to those offering a traditional engineering degree with a BME specialization. It was also found that most Australian universities are now offering a master’s of Biomedical Engineering degree, or plan to in the near future. A catch-phrase that met with approval amongst the workshop participants was “Master’s is the new Bachelor’s”! During ABEC, the subsequent teaching forum canvassed similar issues, as well as exploring various ways BME departments could assist the Biomedical College in further promoting the profession.

Implantable bionics research laboratory in the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, University of New South Wales.

Implantable bionics research laboratory in the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, University of New South Wales.

GSBME students work on a bionic hand project. The task was to design and build a bionic hand that could pour water from a bottle into a glass, and then bring the glass to the mouth to drink!

GSBME students work on a bionic hand project. The task was to design and build a bionic hand that could pour water from a bottle into a glass, and then bring the glass to the mouth to drink!

In Sydney, the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering (GSBME)[3] is Australia’s oldest BME School. Founded in 1976, the first director of the formerly known Centre of Biomedical Engineering was Associate Professor Peter Farrell, who subsequently founded the industry heavyweight ResMed, which specializes in artificial respirators. Recognizing the small market for BME in Australia, as well as the need for biomedical engineers to have a strong skillset in core engineering disciplines, GSBME made the early decision to only offer postgraduate degrees in BME. Since 1994, GSBME has been offering its flagship concurrent-degree program, where students undertake a bachelor’s degree in a traditional engineering discipline including electrical, mechanical, mechatronic, chemical, materials science, computer science, or software engineering, while simultaneously undertaking a range of BME courses. In five years, students graduate with a traditional bachelor’s engineering qualification, as well as master’s degree in BME.

This approach to BME education regards BME as a specialization on top of a solid engineering foundation, renders BME graduates more competitive in the Australian job market, and provides graduates with increased career prospects. Furthermore, BME itself is recognized as a very broad field, ranging from clinical engineering through to medical device development, rehabilitation, biomechanics, telehealth, as well as other biomedical disciplines including biomaterials, tissue engineering, and diagnostic technologies. To be competent biomedical engineers, graduates need to build on a solid core engineering education, which will ultimately shape the nature of their BME specialization. To this end, it is appropriate that BME programs are offered at the postgraduate level, as an entry qualification into the profession.

GSBME teaching laboratory with 50 computer workstations and portable experimental rigs for teaching biomedical instrumentation.

GSBME teaching laboratory with 50 computer workstations and portable experimental rigs for teaching biomedical instrumentation.

Finally, despite the small local market in medical technology, the future of the BME profession in Australia is nonetheless very optimistic and strategically well placed to take advantage of potential upswings in the funding of advanced manufacturing products including medical devices. Several multi-national medical device companies continue to employ BME graduates in Australia, including ResMed, Cochlear, Cook Medical, and Medtronics. New Zealand also hosts Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, which also has branches in Australia. Furthermore, Australia has an impressive track record in implantable bionics, including the cochlear implant, and more recently, the Federal Government awarded AUD$50 million to a national BME consortium to develop a bionic eye. Several other Australian BME companies are actively developing a range of medical-related technologies to improve health care. These companies increasingly require graduates who are innovators, can think outside the square, have a range of technical skills, and are passionate about making a difference in people’s lives with real engineering solutions. The challenge for our academic programs is to make this all happen, and to equip our graduates with skills they need to successfully compete in the emerging Australian BME market.

References

  1. Based on 2012 figures.
  2. Biomedical College.
  3. UNSW Graduate School of Engineering.