Careers in the health industry are consistently in demand. However, students who want to work in healthcare have so many options to consider: doctor, nurse, technician and even biomedical engineer. If you are torn between pursuing a biomedical engineering degree and a traditional medical degree, you need to think about all of the pros and cons of both of these degree and career paths. While there are certainly some advantages of being a doctor, including high salary and faster than average job growth, there are also a number of benefits of choosing a biomedical engineering program over a medical school education.
Earlier Entry Into the Workforce
One of the biggest differences between biomedical engineering degrees and medical degrees is the time it takes to prepare for the career. A bachelor’s degree is typically all you need to begin working as a biomedical engineer, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A graduate degree may be needed to advance to management roles in research teams, but there are certainly jobs you can do in the field if you do not want to go back to school. Students who finish their degrees on time – and even those who stretch out their education to fit in a co-op or internship experience – can become full-fledged biomedical engineers within just four or five years of study after high school. The cost to get started in the career field is limited to the price students pay to attain their undergraduate degree.
Choosing a medical degree, on the other hand, means that you are committed to your education for the long haul. You still need to earn your bachelor’s degree, which typically takes at least four years of study. However, when your peers who chose biomedical engineering are already establishing themselves in their first entry-level engineering jobs, you are just getting started on your Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. You have two years of education in the classroom in front of you, followed by two years of clinical rotations. Even once you officially graduate with your medical degree, you must complete three to seven more years of residency experience before you can really become established as a physician, the BLS reported.
Medical school is highly competitive, and students can spend hundreds to thousands of dollars just on application fees to try to get accepted into selective programs. Medical students have $190,000 in student debt on average as of 2018, The New York Times reported. Of course, there’s also an opportunity cost. Medical school students start earning professional salaries later and as a result have to put on hold other life events and milestones, including buying a home, getting married and starting a family.
For the four years of medical school, students aren’t bringing in any income to speak of, while their peers in biomedical engineering are already earning real wages, with a median entry-level salary of $62,459.
Opportunity to Help More Individuals Overall
Both doctors and biomedical engineers help people, but they do so in different ways. A physician makes a difference in the lives of his or her patients. The impact a doctor has on patients can be considerable. Depending on the medical specialty they pursue, doctors may save their lives or treat their painful or chronic problems that interfere with their quality of life. However, most doctors’ influence will be limited to the individuals they personally interact with, including their own patients and potentially the other healthcare professionals they encounter. Unless the doctor is also a medical research of some sort in addition to providing patient care, it is unusual for one physician to make a medical breakthrough that will benefit all humankind.
For biomedical engineers, the opposite is true. Biomedical engineers work in the design and development of equipment used to diagnose and treat patients’ medical conditions, not necessarily with patients themselves. A biomedical engineer may not have the rewarding experience of personally seeing how much his or her designs improve the lives of individual patients. However, the equipment and processes they develop can be mass produced and applied to a much larger population of patients than a single doctor, or even one practice, would treat.
The type of biomedical equipment a biomedical engineer might develop ranges from diagnostic machines to artificial organs, the BLS reported.
Health Industry Role Without the Stress of Direct Patient Care
While many doctors point to patient interaction as the most fulfilling part of their job, it can also be one of the most stressful aspects of working in medicine. While the patients themselves can be either a reason all the hard work and preparation is worthwhile or a cause of physician burnout, there are also other factors related to providing direct patient care that can create stress for doctors. Because patients get sick or injured at all hours of the night, many doctors have to work long hours and difficult, irregular work schedules. On the other hand, biomedical engineers typically work a normal full-time schedule, and just 20 percent work more than 40 hours per week, the BLS reported. Additionally, administrative tasks take up a great deal of today’s doctors’ time, energy and expense. Biomedical engineers, who work primarily in industries such as medical equipment manufacturing and scientific research and development, don’t face the same hassle of dealing with insurance paperwork and billing codes.
Students who want to become physicians can start with a biomedical engineering background. In fact, some schools offer a premedical biomedical engineering major distinct from a general biomedical engineering program with a stronger focus on subjects like biology and chemistry.