By Jeremy Probst

COVID-19 vaccines bring with them the promise of decreased deaths worldwide, a healthier global economy, and the chance for all of us to return to a more “normal” life. What’s not to like, right? Ironically, the vaccines do create a unique set of challenges for the medical imaging industry that could have alarming consequences.

The Vaccines’ Impact on the Medical Imaging Workforce

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, many hospitals and clinics anticipate a surge in demand for medical imaging procedures. Due to the very nature of mechanical, electronic, and computer equipment, it’s safe to assume that this increased activity will lead to additional wear and tear on imaging equipment & systems. Inevitably, that will lead to more frequent service and repair. That’s definitely not viewed as a positive side effect of the upcoming boom by healthcare administrators needing to find ways to cut costs.

It does, however, present a great opportunity for many companies, especially those who service scanners or provide the needed parts. The problem isn’t truly evident until one considers the impending shortage of qualified imaging engineers many industry experts see looming on the horizon. These individuals are a critical component to keeping imaging systems up and running, so their scarcity could have a major impact on the availability of patient care.

Over the last few years, imaging directors and managers have become increasingly aware of a rapidly growing shortage of qualified imaging engineers. This has already created two distinct challenges for those hoping to hire qualified engineers. On one hand, because of the high demand, most candidates are already employed. That can make it prohibitively expensive to hire them away from their current position. Plus, it can be difficult to retain existing staff because competing companies are also working diligently to recruit them.

On the other hand, biomedical professionals who want to pursue imaging engineering to advance their careers quickly discover there isn’t a lot of opportunity for training. Colleges don’t offer degree programs for imaging engineering. When these individuals were students, counselors weren’t advising them to pursue this particular career path. It just doesn’t exist in the academic world. Qualified imaging engineers were likely trained in the military or previously worked for an OEM. The result is that many biomedical professionals are likely feeling stuck in current roles without a visible path to becoming imaging service capable.

Under ordinary circumstances, this situation could be addressed over time. The industry could evolve to prevent a mere staffing challenge from becoming a healthcare crisis, but the pandemic created a drastic drop in imaging procedures. Many who lacked the foresight to predict the inevitable post-COVID-19 surge were lulled into complacency. The result? Possible delays in potentially life-saving procedures for consumers and millions, if not billions, of dollars in lost revenue for hospitals and imaging facilities.

An Unorthodox, Yet Cost-Effective and Timely, Solution

There is a quickly developing solution for preventing this crisis: Identify existing team members, particularly biomedical equipment technicians (BMETs), who have a desire to advance their career. Healthcare managers can provide the training necessary for those individuals to advance into an imaging service role.

With the lack of degree programs as a major factor contributing to the talent shortage, one could assume that a plethora of training opportunities would exist in order to fill that void. You’d think it would be a foregone conclusion that training is readily available for those wishing to become imaging engineers. Surprisingly, that’s not the case.

Imaging engineer training opportunities are almost unheard of, but the reason doesn’t lie in a lack of facilities capable of providing it. AAMI-certified courses are already available from a handful of highly qualified training centers. The lack of opportunities has instead been created by the unwillingness of hospitals and other facilities to break the status quo.

Whether due to liability concerns or simply tradition, an unfortunate prejudice against promoting BMETs often exists within healthcare organizations. Developing in-house talent could provide answers to many of the challenges faced by directors today were it not for this internal bias.

Directors need to consider how they can grow BMETs beyond their pre-defined role in order to rise above the current situation. Considerably more biomedical technicians are available in the marketplace in comparison to imaging engineers. This clearly identifies them as a viable talent pool from which to draw fresh candidates for unfilled engineer positions.

By encouraging BMETs to advance their skills, directors can help them develop an interest in a career path that was previously considered unavailable. They can then provide further information and coaching about the key differences between their role as a BMET and that of an engineer. Aspiring candidates will initially recognize that engineering, unlike being a technician, is substantially more than a simple service job. They’ll quickly see the potential for the increased relevancy of the position, the opportunity for continuous improvement, and, of course, an increase in salary.

In addition to addressing the talent shortage, a strategy of promoting from within brings considerable benefits for both the director and the healthcare organization. These go far beyond the simple cost savings associated with staffing versus outsourcing.

By showing interest in staff development, leadership can expect increased staff loyalty and significantly lower employee turnover. Over 90% of employees state that they would be more motivated to stay with a company that invests in their careers. Considering the average exit expense of an employee is 33% of their annual salary, retention can quickly lead to substantial cost savings.

Being a BMET does not automatically qualify an individual as a potential imaging engineer. Directors need to be on the lookout for additional attributes that can help identify them as suitable candidates. Staff members who show ambition, go beyond expectations, and show an interest in furthering their education will quickly stand out from the rest. Those who have researched the tools and best practices of their trade, or have pursued relevant training on their own, are typically ideal for advancement into an engineering career.

Developing BMETs into Imaging Engineers

Once leadership embraces this paradigm shift and recognizes potential candidates, the next steps for turning BMETs into imaging engineers are comparable to those for traditional employee development. Mentorship, in-house workshops, and enrollment in outside training will go a long way toward encouraging BMETs to climb the organizational ladder.

Simple things like helping them find the right class or program, assisting with scheduling, and clarifying the costs involved—both in time and money—can make the difference between a stagnated technician and a highly sought-after and valuable imaging engineer, potentially even a senior engineer. Directors need to look for training centers that offer AAMI-certified courses. Premium courses offering 8 ACI CEUs per day of training are considered the gold standard. Helping staff members move forward on their career journey is a simple (yet vital) step in securing an ongoing source of high-quality imaging talent.

Moving Forward with a New Paradigm

The impending talent shortage for imaging engineers poses a significant challenge for the industry. This is particularly alarming in light of the expected surge in procedures resulting from the widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Directors need the right people in place so critical patient care can continue without equipment downtime or undue stress on existing imaging staff.

While unintentional biases and academic short-sightedness have made it difficult to secure qualified individuals, the good news is that a more substantial source of potential candidates already exists within the industry: BMETs looking to advance their careers. A simple paradigm shift is all that’s needed to tap into this wellspring of talent.

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].