Biomed-focused training helps sharpen the blurry lines separating biomed and IT responsibilities

Technology has changed the way people watch television, listen to music, and communicate with friends. It’s also changing the way biomedical equipment technicians (BMETs) and clinical engineers (CEs) do their jobs.

Gone are the days of stand-alone devices and machines that find their way to a biomed shop for repair and maintenance. Today’s medical systems are powered by software and are plugged into the hospital’s network infrastructure.

For clinical engineering teams, interaction with the resident information technology (IT) department is more of a turf war than a professional relationship.

“A lot of the biomeds can solve a problem if they can take ownership of it, but until they have an understanding of the network, they can’t take ownership of those types of problems and work with IT,” says James Rizzo, lead IT technical instructor, GE Healthcare Technical Training, Wauwatosa, Wis. “One of the major purposes for this course is to bridge that gap. We are trying to give them the skill set—not just the technical—on how they can communicate, work with, and even become a part of the IT department, so they leave feeling like they can take ownership of the project and work with IT to get the job done.”

The course Rizzo is referring to is one that tackles this issue—the not-so-subtle blending of IT and CE—head on. Created and implemented by GE Healthcare Clinical Systems Services, Wauwatosa, Wis, the “Essentials of Healthcare IT” course started enrolling clinical engineering professionals about a year ago. Since then, the dozen or so instructors have since explained the inner workings of computer networks to more than 50 biomeds from health care organizations across the country.

Rizzo worked closely with Leanne Cordisco, technical program development manager and business development manager for GE Healthcare Technologies Education Services, Wauwatosa, Wis, who created GE Healthcare’s HCIT Network Engineer program, under which the “Essentials” class falls. Course development had one central focus: to create an instructional forum tailored to the needs of biomeds and clinical engineers.

“I’m a 20-year veteran of biomedical engineering, with 14 years of that spent in the field,” Cordisco says. Cordisco specialized with anesthesia systems in the operating rooms (ORs). After her company became part of GE, she began to realize that while the OR was not networked, the hospital was.

“I realized people working in the OR were very far behind, so I started taking all the standard IT industry classes.”

Like many biomeds who find themselves in similar situations, Cordisco soon discovered that traditional IT courses provided a wealth of information but very little of it applied directly to a CE’s role in the hospital as the hospital environment began changing and becoming more networked.

“Essentials in Healthcare IT” has been specifically designedto provide information relevant to the daily tasks performed by biomeds.

“We have moved the course structure away from the IT model of being information-heavy and theory-heavy; and we generate much better results by letting them get their hands on the systems, letting them plug in the devices, letting them see the network, rather then just thinking of it as something that’s happening behind the walls,” Cordisco says. “Once they can build it, they can understand it.”

Though a majority of attendees have been GE employees, the course is decidedly vendor neutral. In fact, the curriculum does not address any company’s products.

Device-specific training has been left up to the manufacturers. The “Essentials” instructors cover what happens after any device, made by any manufacturer, gets plugged in.

“That device is going to connect the hospital’s network somehow,” Cordisco says, adding that the class will teach students the open standards within the hospital environment that make it possible for that conductivity to happen.

Unraveling the Mystery
Whether it is computers or cooking, learning something new has its challenges. For biomeds eager to get a working knowledge of what happens after a machine is plugged in, the “Essentials of IT” course requires only minimal computer savvy.

“If you use a computer to do your job, to send e-mails, or surf the Internet, that’s the skill level that will get you through this class,” Cordisco explains. “What I think is most important is your interest level. If you come into the class with an open mind, thinking you might pick up a trick or two, you are the kind of person we want.”

Taught by instructors with extensive biomed experience, the syllabus follows a straightforward approach. Day 1 launches with the basics of computer hardware, providing students with an opportunity to explore the computers and understand how to add hardware, drivers, and peripherals.

Steady progression each day advances to building and troubleshooting flat networks; administering service and client networks; configuring Web browsers; and local and remote administration of routers.

By week’s end, everyone in the session will learn how to build and troubleshoot flat, switched, routed, and wireless networks. To make this happen, each student is provided with a laptop for use during the 5-day course and, in pairs, have access to a switch, a router, and an access point for configuration.

“When students first come in, I tell them they are going to build the Internet. The same thing that goes on with the World Wide Web they are going to build in the classroom,” Rizzo says. During the week’s training, attendees learn how to address, design, implement, and troubleshoot a wireless, routed network while also programming all of the devices in between. “They don’t believe me, but by the end of 5 days they not only have done it, but they understand it,” he says.

Making Believers
Finding converts among participants is common and course feedback is overwhelmingly positive, according to Rizzo. Getting administrators on board can be a different story.

“They’re very used to the way IT training has been done, and they’re not sure there is going to be any direct benefit to them to have this training and experience in their staff,” he says. “I’ve had managers send one person to the course to find out what the course was about because a lot of them don’t believe this course exists a way that it does.”

Getting the word out about the educational program is vital for GE, which believes part of the industry’s hesitation to learn IT skills comes from a lack of awareness that pertinent training is on the market.

“The biomeds and clinical engineers keep getting pulled into networking issues, and I think they see the need for this training,” says Michael Reed, manager, Global Education, GE Healthcare, Wauwatosa, Wis. “With administrators in the hospitals and the biomed managers, I think it may not be as much about resistance as it is a lack of knowledge that something like this is available.”

Which is not to say that many biomeds themselves are not reluctant to tackle IT education. However, Cordisco does not believe this stems from a lack of interest in learning a new skill set.

“I think that for most people, looking at IT is pretty overwhelming, so when somebody tells you all of the things that are out there in the networking world, you think, ‘There is so much to learn; I will never get caught up,’ ” she says. “Then you get almost frozen, because you don’t know where to start. And that’s what we saw in biomedical engineering—people got ‘stuck’ because the field is so large.”

Things to Come
The antidote may just be GE’s approach to this type of training: breaking down the field into manageable segments. To that end, this IT class is the first in what is planned to be a series of technology-related classes designed to help CEs and BMETs tackle the future of their careers.

Aiming to launch a total of six classes in the coming year, subsequent courses will address radio frequency, HIPAA and security, and advanced protocols in a health care IT environment, as well as classes covering hospital information systems workflow and data and database management.

Interested professionals can take any or all of these classes once they complete the “Essentials of IT” course, which is considered to be a baseline for successive training.

“Anyone who takes the ‘Essentials of Healthcare IT’ class has earned the title ‘health care IT network technician,’ ” Cordisco says. “We’re developing our classes so that if you really love health care IT, you can take a series of classes and earn a series of certificates, beginning with health care IT network technician and moving to the highest level, which is health care IT network engineer.”

Currently, attendees receive a certificate at the end of their 5 days, but the ability to obtain official certification through this educational program is in the works.

For more information on this class visit the Web site:

Dana Hinesly is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact us at [email protected].

A New Style
Ready to learn more? 24×7 sat down with course developers Leanne Cordisco and James Rizzo, along with Global Education Manager Michael Reed, all from GE Healthcare, Wauwatosa, Wis.

24×7: Why did GE make the class nonvendor-specific?

Cordisco: It’s the right thing to do to best serve our customers—not only the biomedical engineers we have working for GE, but also to serve the biomedical engineers and the IT professionals in health care.

We needed to have a curriculum that would reach out to everyone, and not everyone owns GE products. We wanted people who owned all other major manufacturers’ products to feel welcome and to know that all of these manufacturers’ products all connect using the same open standards, which allow devices to talk with the network, regardless of who made them.

24×7: How are courses organized?

Rizzo: One of the goals of this course, and the future courses, is to give the attendees as much hands-on experience as possible. One of the negatives about putting biomeds through IT-style classes is that those classes tend to have very little lab time, with an overemphasis on information.

Cordisco: We shoot for 60% to 70% percent hands-on time and 30% to 40% lecture time, because we know biomedical engineers learn best through hands-on work.

Rizzo: Because it is so hands-on, each course also has an average maximum of 10 students because we want to keep a low student-to-instructor ratio. We can take up to 12 students in some situations.

24×7: Why is it important for biomeds to learn about networking?

Reed: The traditional process for biomeds is to repair physical medical devices in the facility. Right now, people are not really looking at the hospital network as a product, because they don’t see it and they think of it as something that’s behind the walls. But they need to start looking at that network in the hospital as a product and understand that it requires the same type of training, the same thought process, and troubleshooting process that any other product in the facility requires.

Cordisco: And just like any specialty within biomedical engineering, this product—the network product—has a learning associated with it.

24×7: Is a class only for biomedical technicians?

Cordisco: No, we also have IT professionals take the course. What we are doing in this class is showing IT the clinical engineering way of doing things, which is the customer-focused model of repair. We like to stress just how important the work of a biomed is; we explain the life-critical nature of the equipment, which is an element they do not normally get.

Also, just like in the clinical engineering world, IT techs can get segmented into areas of specialization, so they may not have switching or routing or access-point configuration experience. By coming into this class, they learn these practical skills, and that will allow them to go to new places within the hospital, career-wise.

24×7: What impact do you think this type of class will have on the clinical engineering profession?

Cordisco: I believe that it is going to improve the quality of care in the long run, because it is going to allow clinical engineering and IT to truly come together and find a common ground. There are all these buzzwords in the industry about biomed/IT convergence, but there are very few road maps on how to get there. What we are offering is one practical solution to allow this conversion to happen in a very positive way.

Rizzo: In every realm when one world has met with IT, there comes the realization that in terms of IT infrastructure, nothing ever happens in a vacuum. So this convergence has to happen. For the biomedical world, it is coming one way or the other, and it is already there, in many instances. And for the biomedical world, it has to be there in an even better fashion than with any other world, because of the very direct impact the work has on patients and human lives. That’s the direction the field really needs to head in, and that is why this class is here. —DH