By Jeremy Probst

The phrase “end of life” can have some fairly negative connotations for just about anybody. However, for those who’ve worked with medical imaging equipment for anything more than a few years, it probably has some added meaning that’s somewhat less gloomy. For them, it’s just another piece of industry jargon they’ve heard many times before.    

For somebody fairly new to the world of biomedical imaging technology, on the other hand, it can be downright terrifying, especially if it’s referring to a million-dollar CT or MRI system. For instance: Imagine being recently hired and put in charge of the health and well-being of an organization’s imaging systems.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, you receive an official-looking letter from a medical imaging equipment manufacturer. You open it up and see the words “End-of-Life Notification” in big, bold letters at the top of the page and a reference to one of your prized scanners—or perhaps your only scanner. Thoughts of blown budgets, inoperable equipment, and thousands of dollars in lost revenue flash through your head right before you pass out.

What Exactly Does ‘End of Life’ Mean for Medical Imaging Equipment?

The truth is, almost every CT or MRI manufacturer sends its customers letters notifying them that specific scanner models are nearing their “end of life” (EOL). For most experienced imaging managers and engineers, receiving one of these notifications in the mail isn’t much of a surprise, nor is it anything to be alarmed about. But do these letters really mean that the obsolete machine needs to be put out to pasture and replaced? Not necessarily.

The equipment is still fully functional and safe to use, but the manufacturer is no longer willing to invest the time, effort, and money necessary to continue providing service for a particular model. This might be because it’s simply no longer cost-effective to maintain an inventory of spare parts and the expertise necessary to install them for only a handful of remaining systems. The more likely reason, however, is that they’ve rolled out newer and better models and are hoping the EOL notification will be a friendly nudge to customers that it might be time for an upgrade.

An end-of-life notification letter is not a death decree for imaging equipment, nor is it a cleverly disguised bill of sale for a brand-new scanner. It simply means the OEM will no longer be providing the parts and service for that particular model. Unbeknownst to many, there is another servicing option that can keep systems running for years to come, but it’s not an option the manufacturer is going to bring to a customer’s attention: servicing existing CT machines in-house.

Servicing Medical Imaging Equipment In-House: Is It Worth It?

When imaging equipment goes down unexpectedly, having in-house service capabilities with at least one full-time imaging engineer on staff can be a significant contributing factor to the long-term success, patient satisfaction, and profitability of the healthcare organization. Equally important is having a small, onsite inventory of supplies and replacement parts, as well as a trusted team of qualified technical support experts only a phone call away.

Fortunately, the aftermarket availability of parts for many imaging system models is currently very stable, meaning it’s highly possible to service a machine in-house—an approach that can save tens-of-thousands of dollars compared to buying a new machine. Despite the cost of additional parts and the talent investment in a qualified engineer, there is still the potential for substantial long-term cost-savings.

For those who aren’t already set up to service CT equipment in-house, there are companies to partner with who specialize in developing in-house maintenance programs, supplying replacement parts, and providing industry-certified engineer training. Top providers offer in-person training at highly specialized training centers as well as virtual training academies.

New to the industry, the virtual courses give students content that’s identical to in-person class instruction, offering attendees flexibility to choose between platforms or even create a hybrid learning experience. Classes involve real-time instruction, with various opportunities for audio and visual collaboration. For example, students can interact with the class’ virtual whiteboard, share documents, and ask questions. All that’s required is a computer and a free, downloadable app.

The industry standard for qualified engineers is certification through the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI). The upfront investment in proper certification is quickly offset by the cost savings, improved quality, and reduced turnaround time gained by bringing equipment maintenance in-house.

In an effort to embrace this model, many healthcare organizations have started uptraining existing biomedical equipment technicians (BMETs) to the role of engineer. With premium training companies offering 45 continuing education units (CEUs) per weeklong course, managers are discovering just how quickly in-house imaging talent can be promoted to the role of engineer.

Establishing an in-house team is possible, and these companies can provide the guidance and training to set it up, the parts to keep it going, and the expertise to make sure it remains a cost-effective alternative to purchasing new equipment. Many of these providers also offer turnkey solutions for both parts and service.

Between the high availability of parts, training resources, and technical support, healthcare organizations can confidently keep their CT machines running reliably for many years to come without buying new systems every time an EOL letter arrives in the mail.

Knowing When to Upgrade Your CT Equipment

No matter how good an in-house imaging engineer might be, there will eventually come a time when all the legacy parts for a particular machine model are used up and unavailable. That’s when purchasing replacement equipment becomes inevitable. When it is no longer possible to service the machine, then it is truly at its “end of life.”

The good news is that OEMs and many service providers can identify where a particular CT machine is on the EOL timeline. They have their fingers on the pulse of the industry and understand the overall availability of parts throughout the market. They can assess how near, or far away, true EOL is for a particular machine based on parts availability.

While receiving an end-of-life notification letter from an OEM doesn’t automatically mean that particular imaging machine is destined for the scrap heap, it does act as a reminder to plan for the inevitable. It’s also a good time to make sure all preventive maintenance (PM) is up to date should sale or trade-in of the old equipment become an option. PM ensures that all parts are functioning properly, provides a clear indicator of where service attention might be needed, and helps determine the accuracy of the true EOL prediction.

Conflicting Priorities: Focusing on Systems vs. Parts

OEMs are focused on innovation in technology. They are constantly working on complete imaging machines that represent the most advanced capabilities and technologies. When there’s an issue with a particular machine part, the OEM will often look to the specific parts manufacturer for a solution, which can take time and might not provide immediate results. OEMs are not necessarily set up to evaluate and service those individual parts themselves.

Conversely, third-party providers are significantly more focused on individual parts. They’re constantly quality testing parts to ensure they are delivered to customers with a low DOA rate and a long service life. The best providers maintain a robust inventory system to ensure that whatever parts their customers order are the parts that they actually receive. For expensive and fragile parts like these, the packing materials from a parts dealer can actually have a higher focus on quality since their primary focus is on the shipment of individual parts versus complete machines.

Consider ‘EOL’ a Reminder, Instead of a Death Notice, for Medical Imaging Equipment

Ultimately, an EOL letter is merely a reminder that it’s time to consider the best path forward for not only that piece of equipment, but for the organization’s imaging systems maintenance program as a whole. Is it time to bring CT maintenance in-house, set up a long-term parts and service contract, or upgrade to a new machine? The only way to make that determination is to fully understand the options before putting the old imaging equipment out to pasture.

Jeremy Probst is president and CEO of Technical Prospects and the son of company founder, Bob Probst. Jeremy has spent over 19 years in the medical imaging and engineering field and holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology management, as well as a minor in electrical control systems and fluid. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].