Over the past few years, we have seen the growing convergence of the clinical engineering (CE) and information technology (IT) departments in hospitals and healthcare facilities. Today’s equipment is increasingly computerized and networked, so it only makes sense that these two departments should be working together. But along with this convergence comes a great deal of trepidation and distrust. Change is hard, and the very nature of it can create a feeling of imbalance. Things we were used to no longer hold true; new things we don’t completely understand yet are introduced. We are faced with either getting on board, or being seen as throwing a wrench in the works.

After speaking with many people in the industry, a few things have become clear to me. Both sides are still very committed to their jobs and the success of their organizations, but the way they approach their work is very different. IT departments tend to be more business-oriented. They are focused on systems and procedures and have strict rules by which they abide. CE departments, in contrast, tend to be more patient-centric. They do whatever it takes to service the patient. These approaches are neither right nor wrong, just different.

Abbe Meehan, TEC Resource Center. Photo courtesy of TEC Resource Center.

Abbe Meehan

Because of these distinct priorities, the vocabulary each department uses can be misinterpreted, leading to frustration on both sides. When IT speaks of a critical issue, for example, it is usually organization-critical: They may have to shut down an entire department to correct a problem. CE’s concerns, on the other hand, are often life-critical: A patient’s life may be at stake. An MR system going down is critical to CE. However, IT may see that failure as the loss of just one machine, lacking the global impact of, say, a server going down, which affects the entire hospital. This difference in language can cause conflict when one department’s response to a crisis does not seem appropriate to the other party.

So what is needed for a successful convergence? What will help each department meet its needs without trampling on the other? The answer is learning how to communication effectively and keeping an open mind. Successful facilities have reported that the following steps have made change easier and their staff more cohesive:

Daily meetings with both teams. When you hold meetings specifically dedicated to the adjustments necessary for the convergence, team members learn more and contribute more. The buy-in for new procedures is greater because they were a part of the solution. Use this time to work out operational details like who needs to sign off on reports or who should receive certain information. For truly effective communication, people need to feel comfortable enough to share their honest feelings. The meeting facilitator must make sure everyone is heard and respected. That means persuading the quieter people to share their thoughts, and helping more verbose people learn how to be assertive rather than aggressive.

Learn each other’s lingo. Both sides need to build trust so people feel comfortable asking questions. They need to know that they are not going to be blown off or viewed as incompetent if they don’t know what something means. Members of each team must be approachable so the other department can learn its language. Take time to explain your department’s terminology to your colleagues across the aisle. Subtle differences in nomenclature can cause big problems down the road. Compiling a glossary of terms can go a long way toward establishing a common understanding.

Educate the other department on your department. In any organization, people often do not have a strong grasp of what other departments really do. Think about formal presentations on what is important to each group. Include the team’s vision, and the different roles members play.

Create provisions for emergencies before they happen. Conflict most often occurs during stressful times like emergencies. Do your best to anticipate and plan for them beforehand, when everyone is calm and thinking with an open mind. Make sure there are appropriate backup plans in place and be clear about who is responsible for what.

Combine best practices. IT and CE may have more in common than first meets the eye. Validating and combining best practices will make for a more efficient and cohesive department. According to Stephen Grimes of Strategic Healthcare Technology Associates, the ISO 20000 table of contents offers a great roadmap for what needs to be covered by both departments. Even if your facility is not ISO-compliant, both IT and CE will find familiar processes in these guidelines they can use them as a starting point. The document contains information on critical areas that apply to both teams, such as incident management, capacity management, change management, configuration management, and risk management.

For many years, CE did not have a place at the C-level table. According to a leading industry expert, one of the major benefits of CE merging with IT is that the chief intelligence officer is one of the most influential people in a healthcare facility when it comes to strategic matters. If both departments manage to find true alignment, imagine the resources and support that could now be available.

In an industry that keeps changing on a daily basis, nothing can kill progress more than complacency. If people dig in their heels and continue to do things the same way they always have, conflicts will thrive and forward momentum will stall. At the end of the day, the organization needs all parties to do their part to keep the facility running and serving patients. A successful team needs all players rowing in the same direction, which takes effective communication and open minds.

Abbe Meehan is the president of TEC Resource Center. For more information, contact chief editor Jenny Lower at [email protected] 

Photo credit: © Paul Farnfield | Dreamstime.com