By Rick Schrenker

I recently saw yet another online post regarding what I call ‘The Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome’ affecting HTM. The usual litany was more or less cited: “We don’t get any respect. People don’t know what we do until all hell breaks loose. We save the day, and nice things are said about us.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

Rick Schrenker

Rick Schrenker

The writer actually wrote, ‘save the day’ in his post, and I immediately thought, “Perfect!” because whenever this issue has arisen over the years, I’ve been reminded of Mighty Mouse’s famous refrain: “Here I come to save the day!” It’s deserved recognition, but if it’s always the only recognition, it’s frustrating. And it’s been frustrating for a long time.

But the problem isn’t simply how others sporadically see us—it’s also about how many of us like being seen that way, but lament the consequences without challenging our customers’ perspective.

Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article for a management column titled, “Engineers in Clinical Engineering: Does the Need Remain?” I wrote it in response to an article that argued that clinical engineering departments (as they were all called back then) should identify with the business side of the hospital. In my response, I countered that there were precious few engineers in hospitals and that our added value derived almost totally from that fact (the same can be said for BMETs). I went on to argue that one challenge of being a professional is taking a stand on something that matters—and that requires willingly disagreeing with colleagues.

To illustrate the point, I cited a passage from the book, Catch-22, in which the main character is offered a promotion. He’s been a pain in the, er, side to the brass, so he’s a bit surprised and asks what will now be expected of him. Their answer? Like them. That’s all. Like them. In other words, don’t challenge them and stop being a nuisance.

I’ve often accepted a “Mighty Mouse” compliment with something deferential like, “Thanks, but in the future consider involving us in your technology decision-making before stuff like this happens. Because not only do we know how to address emergencies like this, we also know how to avoid them in the first place.”

But I’m not always so nice. I have been known to argue that the field has to pick consequential battles and stick to them. One issue that got me particularly incensed was the name change to HTM. I mostly considered it about as consequential as the old cliché about rearranging the Titanic deck chairs. I went berserk online about it and challenged some of AAMI’s leadership who were advocating for it, and whom I held, and continue to hold, in high regard.

Over coffee at one AAMI annual meeting, I argued rather vehemently that the problem with seeing the name change as making enough of a difference to invest a lot of time and energy into it ignored the risk that it might not make a difference at all. And ignoring that risk kicked the ‘Who are we and why are we here?’ can down the road at a time when we were already beginning to see a lack of newcomers to take Boomers’ places. Time was not in the field’s favor.

So, you tell me: How much of a difference has changing the name of the field made? I’m serious—tell me; argue with me. Care enough about what the field is to define it in such a way that you’ll want to stand up for it and recruit others to the profession.

Now, to get back to where I started: Even as I approach retirement and increasingly move away from the field, I can’t help but see the downside of the Mighty Mouse syndrome cited year after year. Can I offer any suggestions? I’ll start with some more clichés to set the stage, from Einstein, who said that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results and Santayana, who pointed out that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

If you want to be seen as anything other than a technical Mighty Mouse, then let your colleagues know it—and in no uncertain terms. Make yourself visible in other roles. Teach. Write. Present. Learn how to structure arguments to make your point, formally and informally. Broaden your department’s scope. Speak up when you see a problem. Admit when you’re wrong, but don’t back down when you’re right.

Do something different—something they don’t expect you to do, something they don’t even know you can do, and something they may not even know they need done.

Rick Schrenker is a systems engineering manager for Massachusetts General Hospital. Questions and comments can be directed to chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected]