Question: The allure of engineering is the fact that I may be able to improve the lives of many people with one single development. I am concerned, however, that I will not be able to have a direct and personal level of interaction with those I help,which is why I am torn between going to medical school or graduate school for engineering. Maybe this is a belief I hold due to my ignorance about the day-to-day life in the engineering occupation, but I hope that someone may help me understand more about this particular aspect of engineering.
by Elyssa, Waco, TX
on March 28, 2012
Working in biomedical engineering, the decision to continue ones studies in graduate school or apply to medical school frequently arises. From your question, it is not clear to me whether you are considering majoring in engineering or already an undergraduate engineer. The good news is that both options are open to you as an undergraduate engineer. Generally, having research experience as an undergraduate helps with the decision process as may summer experiences in industry. In addition, the area one pursues in graduate school will affect whether you're primarily studying basic mechanisms or if your work is rapidly translated to the clinic. Both types of research exist. It sounds like translational research will be of more interest to you, and you will need to figure out which particular area you want to pursue. That being said, if your goal is primarily to have direct, daily interactions with patients, then medical school is likely your best route. Few engineers interact with patients on a daily basis, although there are some exceptions. Again, this decision does not need to be made before starting college as long as your coursework fulfills the premedical requirements, which many undergraduate curricula do. You have time to consider your options based on the experiences and information you accumulate as an undergraduate.
I can completely relate to your plight on this particular topic. Since beginning my career in the medical device industry it has been something that I've struggled with often. I believe the desire to beneficially impact those around you is entirely natural; and you seem to be especially passionate about this task.
Based on my personal experience, I do believe that you'll be able to have a 'direct and personal level of interaction' with your customers in both the medical and engineering professions. The challenge within engineering is that your interaction with the patients who receive or use your devices (be it an implant, monitor, or surgical instrument) is usually limited to observing procedures in the Operating Room or the ICU. I think the important thing to consider as an engineer is that the patient isn't your only customer! …you can't forget the surgeon, the scrub nurses, and your internal customers, such as your marketing partners etc. As an engineer, it is an essential part of your job to gain a thorough understanding of the Voice of the Customer (VOC) so that you can develop the most safe and effective product for the benefit of the patient. It is likely within this type of role, that you'll have much more interaction with the surgeons and nurses than with the end user (patient) themselves. Outside of procedures, you have the opportunity to meet with surgeons during conferences, training courses / cadaver labs, and other scheduled meetings.
I have worked for 3 major, corporate medical device companies within my career and have found that if you seek out opportunities to interact with the surgeons who utilize your devices you will certainly be granted that chance. If you are not proactive about this then the customer interaction will lie solely with the sales and please don't hesitate to contact me with any further questions.
This is a great question that I know many people within the field have faced, including myself. As an engineer, you are very likely to work with people in the medical field including doctors but you are less likely to work with patients directly unless you specifically navigate your career choices to do so. If you are interested in prosthetic and rehabilitation engineering, then you are likely to have the opportunity to work one-on-one with patients. If you don't want to be limited to this area of biomedical engineering and you are really keen on medical school, then you can always get involved with research and development later in your career as a clinician (after all, all the medical device companies consult with clinicians). Hope this helps!