Although women remain a minority in most HTM departments, the field offers them growing opportunities for fulfilling careers

In 1974 when Barbara L. Christe, PhD, began her career in biomedical engineering, she was often mistaken for the department secretary, even though she was as capable and well educated as her male counterparts. Today, as more women enter the profession, that kind of misidentification is rare. But ask any female in the field and she’ll tell you there is still much progress to be made.

Christe, associate professor and program director of Healthcare Engineering Technology Management at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), wanted to pursue “the meaningful part of health care combined with the strengths of biomedical engineering,” without direct patient care. But finding an appropriate program was a challenge. “There were few programs at the time – maybe about 20. Now there are hundreds,” she says.

Expanding Education

Fortunately, Christe did find a program at Marquette University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering. Following graduation, she worked at the University of Connecticut health center until she and her family moved to Indianapolis. Fate brought her back into the classroom, this time as a professor in a clinically based biomedical engineering program. “This was within my discipline. Now I was focused on students working in a clinical setting,” she says.

At the time the school offered only an associate degree and Christe saw a need for an advanced course of study. She convinced the administration to create and implement a bachelor’s degree, designed to fit the needs of employers.

But even as educational opportunities expanded, not enough women were entering these biomedical programs. “The percentage is about the same as it was 5 or 10 years ago. One problem we face is that clinical engineering is not a destination major for people coming out of high school,” Christe notes. “Very few – only about 2 to 5 percent – are first time 18-year old freshman. We have a way to go until we see 18 year olds in our program. The few we get are women who can’t get into the nursing program.” At Purdue approximately 600 people apply to the nursing program and only 100 are accepted. There is also a lack of diversity among faculty, according to Christe. Studies show a direct correlation between the proportions of female faculty and female students, she adds.

Samantha Jacques, PhD, FACHE, is director of biomedical engineering at Texas Children’s Hospital. She had always wanted to be an engineer, but the traditional disciplines – mechanical, engineering, chemical – didn’t hold much appeal. “I wanted to engage more with people and ultimately wanted to see the impact I made,” she says. “At the time I went to college, there were only a few places with biomed at an undergraduate level.” The Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) was one such school, where she had a chance to learn hardcore mechanical and electrical engineering while applying the engineering principles to medicine in a multi-disciplinary program. “Additionally we had a senior design process that allowed us to do product design from requirements gathering to product development,” she reports.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from MSOE and a doctorate from Louisiana Tech University, Jacques, like Christe, accepted a teaching position. From 2003 to 2007 she served as assistant professor in biomedical and electrical engineering, first at Bucknell University and then at MSOE. “Since biomedical engineering was still expanding nationally as an undergraduate program, there were several universities starting programs. I didn’t have a hard time finding a position at one of those universities,” she says. “I had an opportunity to work with the next generation. They are idealistic and have great notions.”

In 2007, Jacques transitioned to the clinical world, where she was able to appreciate a different worldview. “I see sick kids going home. I’m able to help them go on to lead full lives,” she says, explaining that her two career paths offer different rewards in different ways. “I would not have transitioned from one to the other without knowing there would be intrinsic value.”

Benefiting from Internships

When Allison M. White, manager, biomedical engineering at Catholic Health in Buffalo, NY, was exposed to clinical engineering through the Federal Career Internship Program with the Veterans Administration (VA), she knew she had found her niche. “Interestingly enough, I did not know about clinical engineering during my undergrad years,” she says. Her internship taught her about the discipline and paved the way for her future. She reports that the VA provided financial support that enables students to attend conferences, take health care information technology courses and engage in other activities related to the profession.

“Clinical engineering allows me to have routine face-to-face interactions with clinical, technical, administrative and other professionals in a healthcare environment as well as get access to new medical technology,” White says. “I like the idea of an engineering field that does not confine me in a lab setting, design room or a manufacturing floor.” She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in bioengineering from the State University of New York at Binghamton and is working towards a master of science in technological systems management.

Izabella A. Gieras, MS, MBA, CCE, also credits an internship, in combination with a strong academic foundation, for her success. Now director of clinical technology at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif, she launched her career at the University of Cape Town in South Africa with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. The biomedical courses she took at the end of her schooling piqued her interest in this specialty area.

When her parents relocated to the United States, Gieras applied to the University of Connecticut in 1998 and graduated two years later with a degree in clinical engineering. She asserts that one of the best parts of the program was a two-year internship at Hartford Hospital. “I took courses and worked in the hospital. This gave me practical and academic experience that focused on work in a hospital and health care,” she says. “The internship served as a gateway to getting practical experience. It helped shape my career and gave me more opportunities. More and more universities are offering [internships] now.”

After graduation, Gieras landed a position at William Bowman Hospital in Michigan where she worked for eight years. During this time, she became interested in pursing managerial positions and began working on a business degree. “I completed my MBA in 2003 and have been in management positions ever since.

A Level Playing Field

The HTM discipline has posed little challenge as far as equal pay and advancement are concerned, according to White. “As someone who started in the federal government, I can say that all of us biomedical engineers who worked or still work at the VA started in the same grade, based on education, and were able to move to the next level, based on experience,” she explains.

Furthermore, while employed by an independent service organization (ISO), White had free rein to grow her accounts, thus dramatically improving her earning potential. “The pay and incentives are proportional to work performance. We are professionals in a growing field and I feel that our employers understand the value we bring to the table,” she says.

Mentors have also played an important role for White. “I appreciate the individuals who have taken a chance on me during my entire career and given me the opportunity to take on new challenges,” she says. “I was able to advance from intern to biomedical engineering in a year and a half, and then to clinical engineering manager 2 years later.”

Make no mistake, though—biomedical engineering does test the individual; the profession requires a certain amount of stamina and flexibility. White cites a CNN Money survey, which gives biomedical engineering a “C” grade in the stress category. She agrees completely, ticking off the numerous tasks she and her department must accomplish in a day. “My department is responsible for everything related to the integrity of the medical equipment. This spans a long list from infusion pumps to CT scanners. We need to make sure equipment downtime is minimal. Parts need to be ordered and received in a timely manner, otherwise patient care is negatively affected,” she says.

Moreover, a biomedical engineer’s hours can be unpredictable. “As a member of the clinical engineering community, I’ve accepted that I do not have the same work schedule every day. I have to remain flexible,” White says. “I’ve found myself working at the different hospitals in my healthcare system at odd hours of the day, like 9 p.m. or 3:45 am. It is tough, but has become second nature to me. We provide a valuable service to the hospital.”

Opportunities Abound

Although the job requires adjusting to fluid work hours and high stress levels, there are rewards to be had for women in biomedical engineering. For instance, Jacques had the chance to spearhead Vision 2010, a $1.5 billion expansion at Texas Children’s Hospital. The biomedical engineering department led the project in technology and equipment planning and implementation, and workflow development. “Most biomed departments don’t do equipment planning. Instead hospitals use the architect for this task,” Jacques says. “By bringing this in-house we were able to drive standardization and lead technology implementation in three brand new facilities.”

Jacques explains that the hospital CEO kicked off the project, which called for expansion in three domains, in 2008 with a 2-year completion date as the end goal. As part of its outreach effort, the hospital built a community hospital in West Houston to secure a foothold in the suburban area and enable patients to get local care without having to travel to the downtown location. The second and third realms included construction of the 22-floor Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute and a Pavilion for Women, which focuses on family-centered care with special attention given to high-risk pregnancies. She was also, and continues to be, responsible for leading a team integrating medical devices into the electronic medical record to drive workflow improvements.

White agrees that opportunities abound for women in biomedical engineering, if they know where to look and are ready for a challenge. “Since graduating, I’ve gained experience working as a clinical engineer for the federal government, then as a clinical engineering manager for an ISO, and now for a private, not-for-profit healthcare system,” she says.

And with opportunity comes recognition in some cases. Just ask White, whose boss submitted her name last summer to the Buffalo Business’s First 30 Under 30 Program. “Among the factors considered for the award program are career achievements, leadership and initiative, community engagement, and each nominee’s potential to become a community leader on a grand scale. My experiences as a member of the clinical engineering community are the major contributors to why I made the 30 Under 30 list in 2014,” White explains.

William Bowman Hospital in Michigan presented a firsthand opportunity for Gieras when she became involved in creating a visibility lab that worked with vendors to develop better products. “We gathered stakeholders, vendors, clinical and medical staff, IT and other departments and formed focus groups to analyze products in prototype. We identified flaws in the equipment. We needed to make sure the equipment was safe and effective for patient use,” she says. “I learned a lot of things. Even today I can apply some of what I learned to my current work. It was exciting to have the opportunity to make changes and see the products [before they hit the market].”

The Female Advantage

Christe has found that women students in biomedical programs are warmly embraced and that acceptance extends beyond the classroom. “There are positive benefits in the clinical setting. Women are seen as less intimidating when reviewing complex technology with nurses. Women who pick this career are recognized and valued in some circumstances and create a tremendous positive presence. They contribute in the broadest sense as they support clinical staff,” she says. “There are some distinct advantages to sending a women technician with strong communication skills. They are seen as less invasive when they have to communicate and translate with clinical staff that is not technologically trained.”

Additionally, as service providers, female clinical engineers have an advantage when working in certain clinical areas. For instance, it’s easier to send a female into a sensitive department, such as mammography. Christe adds that labor and delivery is another area in which women are better suited than males.

Additionally, Christe believes the perspective a woman brings to the job as a mother can be very useful, since she has a heightened awareness of patient and customer service issues. She says, “Customer service comprises 50 percent of the clinical engineer’s job. You have to know how to deal with staff and solve problems. It’s not just plugging in a cable and walking away. There is a lot of nontechnical customer service involved.”

Women possess other unique characteristics that can significantly benefit the industry. “I would look at three items: the ability to listen, empathy/ability to understand someone else’s point of view, and teamwork,” says Jacques. “I’ve recently read some research done around teams and teamwork. It noted that most high functioning teams have more women than men because women are more able to listen and empathize with their team members. I’ve seen this to be true more often than not. Those engineers who are great at listening and putting themselves in someone else’s shoes excel. The other must-have, which is not gender specific, is the ability to communicate.”

Gieras believes that women have the innate ability to multitask and adapt to their environment better than men. “I’m used to managing my time so projects don’t get dropped and deadlines are met. Women have a higher capability of multitasking in a busy environment,” she notes.

Although more women are entering the field of biomedical engineering, many don’t remain, according to Jacques. “They use it as a means to an end. For some women there is still a lot misperception. There is no tie between industry and academia, so a lot of them end up as consultants or in finance,” she asserts, citing the importance of raising awareness and educating the public. For her part, Jacques conducts tours with students from nearby Rice University to help dispel any misunderstandings. “I tell them that I don’t sit with a piece of equipment all day. It’s not a drudgery job. Rather, I ask staff to tell me how their workflow is affected and I’ll figure out a way to improve it. I try to be creative.”

Women eager to embark on a fulfilling career and have the satisfaction of knowing they’ve made a difference would be wise to consider a career in biomedical engineering, according to White. “It is a growing field and as people retire each year we need to continue to replenish our workforce. The challenges are tough, but worth it,” she says.

Phyllis Hanlon is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact editorial director John Bethune at [email protected]