Life-savers: graduate career guide to medical and healthcare engineering

The UK is home to thousands of innovative firms translating cutting edge science into vital medical technology.

Why work in medical and healthcare engineering?

You can literally help to save lives

Siemens SPECT CT scanner
The UK is responsible for developing a huge range of life-saving medical devices.

This sector is about applying the principles of engineering to medicine, using technology to solve problems in a way that improves people’s health and fitness. This could mean working on robotic artificial limbs that make things easier for amputees, redesigning drug delivery systems to improve comfort for the elderly, or producing new ways to diagnose and treat those suffering from deadly illnesses. Ultimately, your engineering skills could contribute to a product that changes or saves the lives of thousands if not millions of people.

You work at the cutting edge of science

Cyborg implants, 3D-printed organs, miniature surgical robots injected into the bloodstream: these ideas are no longer the preserve of science fiction (even if you’re unlikely to routinely encounter them in the NHS just yet). The medical technology sector is continually harnessing scientific breakthroughs to develop revolutionary treatments for everything from cancer to sensory loss. And likewise, technological advances in areas such as genome mapping and robotics are helping create entire new approaches to medicine.

You’re part of a rapidly growing industry

Unlike industries such as aerospace and energy, the medical technology sector is almost entirely comprised of innovative small and medium-sized businesses – in the UK it’s 99 per cent of all firms. This is partly because inventing world-changing medical technology is a fast-moving and costly business and there’s always a risk your new device might never make it through clinical trials. However, small companies are also much quicker when it comes to creating jobs. And the UK’s medtech sector has experienced a boom in recent years, growing 6.6 per cent in 2012 compared to the 0.2 per cent growth in the wider economy.

What does the UK medical and healthcare engineering sector actually do?

Siemens MRI factory Germany
Siemens has MRI manufacturing facilities in the UK, Germany and China.

The healthcare sector encompasses a variety of engineering areas from hospital building management to pharmaceutical manufacturing – drug production is actually such a major part of the UK’s economy that we’ve produced a separate sector guide for it.

The other key opportunity for engineers is in designing and manufacturing medical devices. The UK is a world-leader in several key technologies and has centres of excellence run by some of the biggest international firms in the industry.

But the UK has are over 3,000 small and medium sized companies concentrating on niche areas of innovation, making the sector ideal for anyone attracted to the idea of working for an exciting startup firm with the potential to make a big impact.

It finds innovative new ways to diagnose and treat diseases

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Technology can open up new methods of treatment.

One of the big focuses of medical devices is in diagnosing illnesses. Medical magnetic resonance imaging scans were invented in the UK and today around 30 per cent of all hospital MRI scanners in the world use superconducting magnets developed and made at Siemens’ UK facility. The company also has UK sites specialising in cancer-finding nuclear imaging systems, devices that allow doctors to carry out rapid analysis of blood samples, as well as larger machines for lab-based diagnosis.

It’s also worth noting that although the multinational firm GE Healthcare has its global diagnostic imaging headquarters in the UK, most of its technology R&D and manufacturing in this sector is done in the US and the company only occasionally offers graduate opportunities.

However, the UK does boast numerous small and startup companies creating even more unusual forms of diagnosis and detection, particularly using “lab-on-a-chip” technology. For example, Oxford Medical Diagnostics is working on breathalyser devices that can identify diabetes. Molecular Vision is developing hand-held blood-testing machines that look for signs of heart or kidney disease.

DNA Electronics is pioneering miniature DNA testing technology that could help doctors select the right kind of treatment for a patient. And Intelligent Fingerprinting is planning to launch a device that can detect the presence of drugs left in the sweat of a fingerprint.

Such companies are often spun-out from university research and it’s not uncommon for them to enlist the help of specialist design agencies such as Cambridge Consultants, Brightworks and Cambridge Design Partnership to turn that research into commercial medical devices.

It helps give the disabled and injured a new lease of life

Touch Bionics iLimb

Another key area for UK medical engineering is in prosthetics and implants. Blatchford is a world leader in artificial limbs and wheelchairs and recently has developed an electronic ankle that mimics a real human joint, as well as equipping numerous paralympians. Meanwhile, Touch Bionics has developed a robotic hand that is scarily realistic (think Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back).

As with the diagnostics sector, major international manufacturers of hip and knee replacements such as Biomet have both research and manufacturing facilities in the UK. But smaller homegrown firms are also introducing radical innovations – such as the Exstent heart implant that replaces connective tissue lost due to genetic condition Marfan syndrome.

Another major advance in medical implants is the creation of personalised 3D-printed structures designed specifically for each patient’s exact body shape. UK precision engineering firm Renishaw has become a major player in this sphere with its dental and neurological implants (and its own 3D printers), as well as developing other breakthrough innovations such neurosurgical robots and implantable drug delivery systems.

Drug delivery is also the specialty of the UK outpost of major international manufacturer 3M, while electronics firm Philips has an R&D and assembly facility focused on specialist respiratory drug delivery devices.

It’s taking medicine into the internet age

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Telehealth enables doctors to monitor their patients remotely.

The UK has a large presence among companies producing traditional medical and surgical supplies, with facilities from world leaders such as Becton Dickinson, Eschmann – which designs and builds operating theatre equipment – and Smith & Nephew – which focuses on advanced wound management (among many other things).

But the internet is helping change our approach to medicine, making it easier for doctors to monitor and even treat patients in their own homes. For example, Philips carries out research on a range of home healthcare products in the UK and these devices increasingly have the ability to send information directly to healthcare professionals.

This area of medicine – where communications technologies are used to improve care – is known as telehealthg. Its emergence has prompted the creation of new companies, such as Medvivo and Tunstall, which are creating both hardware and software products that collect valuable data allowing patients and their doctors to better understand their conditions – and receive detailed medical advice without a trip to the hospital or GP. This could be anything from a complex piece of monitoring equipment to a smartphone app.

Do I need a biomedical engineering degree?

Blatchford graduate

No at all. Biomedical engineers are obviously well suited to this sector thanks to their broad training in how engineering principles relate to the processes of the human body. But the industry is interested in many types of engineer to fulfil a variety of roles.

Take Blatchford. The prosthetics company recently launched a new graduate training programme because it was struggling to recruit more experienced engineers with the skills the firm need. The reason? All those engineers were working in the motorsport industry.

It turns out creating a modern artificial leg is remarkably similar to designing a Formula One car: you need expertise in electronics, hydraulics and materials such as carbon fibre and titanium. Just as in sectors like aerospace, being able to reduce weight through clever design is an essential skill, as is an understanding of the latest manufacturing techniques.

Similarly, producing medical diagnostic devices requires expert industrial designers, manufacturing/process/quality engineers, electronics engineers and people with a strong understanding of subjects such as microfluidics and nanotechnology. Plus, the move towards telehealth is driving a particular need for software engineers.

Where are all the jobs?

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Many medical engineering firms, such as Siemens, are based in the South East of England.

Because of the strong association with university research groups, it’s very common to find medical technology firms clustered around universities. In particular, there are many firms located in the south east of England around Oxford and Cambridge.

This includes both university spin-outs and big multinationals, such as Siemens, which bases its MRI magnet business in Oxfordshire and has other sites in Suffolk and North Wales, and Philips, which carries out its home healthcare research at Cambridge Science Park, but also has operations in Sussex and Suffolk.

There’s also a substantial amount of employment in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Smith & Nephew’s advanced wound management global HQ is a major employer in Hull. Meanwhile, clinical and surgical supplies companies Swann Morton and S Murray & Co are both based in Sheffield.

In the south west of England you’ll find Renishaw in Gloucester and Becton Dickinson in Plymouth, while across the Severn in Cardiff is located bone implant experts Biomet.

Other hotspots include the 3M facilities in Loughborough and Lancashire, Eschmann’s base in Berkshire and the Smith’s Medical manufacturing site in Glasgow.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.