How one program is combining online learning with in-person education. The result: better prepared imaging engineers, advocates say.

By Jeremy Probst

For decades, the only way to provide high-quality training for imaging engineers was through in-person, hands-on courses at dedicated educational facilities. While effective, this method of training has several drawbacks:

  • expense and inconvenience due to overnight travel;
  • delays caused by scheduling conflicts and course unavailability;
  • logistical challenges and financial overhead associated with managing groups; and
  • potential impact of equipment failure while service personnel are offsite.

Early Days of Online Medical Imaging Training

With the introduction of computer-based and online training in the 1990s, it appeared that better, more cost-effective solutions for in-person training might be on the horizon. But limitations of early digital technologies meant the anticipated paradigm shift did not come to fruition.

Computer-based training, like CD-ROMs and early web-based content, lacked the interactivity and focus on details necessary to provide a clear understanding of course content and convey the intricacies of MRI and CT system maintenance. Students were unable to ask questions or request clarification. At the same time, small details of the procedures or the equipment itself might be overlooked due to low camera quality, a lack of image detail, or oversights from the curriculum developer.

Improvements in online training, also known as e-learning, addressed some shortcomings by providing an opportunity for students to interact with instructors, ask questions, and gain a better understanding of the course materials in real time. However, true interactivity was still lacking due to the limitations of computer and camera equipment, limited Wi-Fi connectivity, and low data transfer rates on the internet.

True connectivity was years away and the quality of digital devices couldn’t provide the two-way high-resolution images and real-time high-definition video necessary to create an educational experience comparable to in-person, hands-on training. Even expensive, dedicated teleconferencing systems weren’t up to the task.

The Evolution of Interactive Virtual Training for Imaging Engineers

In recent years, developments in virtual training technology and techniques have allowed training providers to remove many challenges and shortcomings of in-person training while still retaining most, if not all, of its benefits.

One such company is Technical Prospects, a medical imaging services provider located in Appleton, Wisconsin. Since 1997, the company has provided imaging systems training, parts, and support to the healthcare industry. While the business of providing spare parts and expert technical support has gone largely unchanged, the recent shortage of qualified imaging engineers, the ongoing need for social distancing, the surge in imaging procedures resulting from the widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and the diagnostic requirements of long COVID symptoms, has led the company to develop a new approach.

Dubbed the Interactive Virtual Training Academy, or IVTA, the company’s approach merges in-person and remote training modalities into a single program. Rather than create separate curriculum models for each modality, the company has developed one core training experience that offers two delivery methods. Both provide the same level of educational quality and offer an identical 45 ACI CEUs per week through their AAMI-accredited training programs.

Creation of the Interactive Virtual Training Academy

At the heart of this dual-mode delivery system is traditional in-person training. Students still attend classes at the company’s Appleton training facility, instruction takes place in the classroom, and hands-on training happens in the lab with a dedicated imaging system. What’s changed is the addition of multiple motion-tracking cameras, large flatscreen video monitors, smartphones and tablets, an audio system, interactive touchscreen whiteboards, and the internet technology and audio-visual hardware and software needed to tie all the pieces together. This technology is the proprietary system that forms the backbone of the IVTA.

Linked to the outside world via a fiberoptic internet connection, the IVTA can connect with students anywhere in the world. By logging in through a dedicated portal, virtual attendees become part of the class. Not only can they see and hear everything taking place, they can also talk directly to the instructor, interact with other attendees (both virtual and in-person), draw on the whiteboard, and view imaging equipment up-close. Except for missing out on the catered lunches, the virtual students’ training experience is almost identical to that of the in-person attendees.

What the virtual attendees don’texperience is overnight travel, potential delays due to scheduling conflicts or course unavailability, or possible challenges of training within a large group. Not to mention, they get to see their family at night and sleep in their own bed. At the same time, their employer doesn’t experience the financial overhead and risk that could be associated with sending service personnel offsite for a week or longer.

Another benefit of the IVTA is the ability to provide custom training programs. This differs from the approach used by original equipment manufacturer training providers. The custom programs are a mix of in-person training, IVTA training, various workshops, and onsite coaching at the client’s facility. The virtual training component also provides the opportunity to divide classes into smaller segments to better accommodate staff scheduling and coverage.

A New Medical Imaging Training Philosophy

The IVTA is more than just new technologies and methodologies. It’s also a change in philosophy and attitude about what creates a high-quality training experience. Gone are the days when attending a few days of system-specific training made somebody an “expert” in imaging equipment maintenance and service.

Today’s complex systems require engineers who not only know how to do routine maintenance or fix problems but also have a holistic understanding of imaging systems, plus the skills and confidence needed to perform system diagnosis and repair in the most efficient manner possible. With the cost of individual scans well over a thousand dollars, excess downtime is no longer an option. Virtual training provides an opportunity for healthcare facilities and service providers to enjoy the benefits of training without the negative effects of in-person attendance.

The Remedy for Ineffective Medical Imaging Training

Is the IVTA the ultimate solution for all imaging training? No. Training needs and learning styles vary from person to person. In addition, some training, by its very nature, requires the in-person experience. For example, veteran engineers may find it beneficial to explore the equipment firsthand, build camaraderie by networking with classmates and instructors outside of the classroom, or simply immerse themselves in the training process without the interruptions of the outside world.

For some, working remotely introduces a variety of distractions that can severely compromise the learning experience. For that reason, remote students are required to find or create a dedicated training environment, attend classes with their cameras turned on, and take personal responsibility for their progress. For both the learner and the employer, Technical Prospects addresses these needs by providing reports on attendance, participation, quiz results, classroom interaction, and workshop performance.

Long-Term Benefits for the Medical Imaging Community

Thanks to recent technological advancements, improvements in training methodology, and a long-overdue shift in perception as to what qualifies as effective training, imaging service providers are now helping to resolve the ever-growing need for qualified and certified imaging engineers. As a result, healthcare providers no longer need to choose between quality, convenience, and price when it comes to training their team.

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 power.