Michael OBrienFrom what I’ve observed, every biomedical technician has stories expounding upon the epic struggles and powerful wrongs they have suffered at the hands of the IT department. I even have a few of my own.

Old Horror Stories

For instance, there was the time when we were relocating a server for the Birth Center central monitoring system and one of our IT techs described his plan to me. “I’m going to go to the Birth Center and ask them if anyone is in labor,” he said, “and if they are, I’m going to wait.” “Wait?” I asked. “Wait for what?” “Wait for the baby to be born,” he said, clearly annoyed with me.

I doubt that I would need to explain to anyone in Biomed where the flaw is in that plan. I did, however, need to explain to IT that the labor could take 24 hours or more and, meanwhile, there might be others in labor. So what he needed to do was ask about any critical labor to find a reasonable time for the 5- to 10-minute interruption. He responded that he didn’t have any kids, so how was he to know? This illustrates one key difference that has separated Biomed and IT: By working closely with our clinical partners, we have developed a sense of workflow and clinical practice.

Then there was the time when I was pacing in the parking lot, waiting for an IT manager to arrive. I’m typically pretty calm, but I had been told that the IT manager had pulled electricians from a wiring project for a patient monitoring installation. This project had a looming go-live, including training and installation teams due within days. The manager pulled the electricians because he was uncomfortable with the remote monitoring solution, which was a tiny part of the entire project. This occurred in spite of the fact that we both had attended all of the same meetings and approved the project together. This happened back in an era when many IT departments had a great deal of power and delayed or denied projects that made them uncomfortable. After some discussion and delay, the solution was installed as planned and is still in operation.

There was an era when IT was not willing to venture into certain areas of the hospital because they were not familiar with the environment. I recall hearing OR staff voice their frustration with a malfunctioning computer and IT trying to resolve the issue by phone. Frustration increased until the OR nurse suggested that IT send someone over to take care of the patient so the nurse could fix the computer.

Another favorite memory was when IT changed the password on my computer and then gave me the wrong password when I called about it. Turns out I still had to crack their code, as they gave me the password in reverse. And then there was a tech insisting over the phone that my PC was just in sleep mode and I just needed to gently wake it up. In that case, the hard drive never woke up again. Many of us have also experienced the slow response to critical issues, or the difficulty reaching someone knowledgeable about a particular issue when something is critical.

Over the years, I’ve heard many discussions about the struggles between Biomed and IT whenever there is a gathering of technicians. It is frequently a matter of piling on, once the stories start flowing, and each tech wants to tell an even greater personal horror story.

A New Era

I’ve witnessed a change, however, and I think now might be time to bury the hatchet. Although biomeds might be skeptical of this claim, I think many IT departments have grown to become more effective and informed allies, although not perhaps as perfect as we strive to be.

For me, this genesis began with the arrival of the electronic medical record. The massive effort involved in a project of that scale created a need for a much stronger clinical presence within IT. Many IT departments hired clinical staff to manage the EMR integration and other critical aspects.

I believe this development had a positive impact on the existing culture and helped connect IT to the hospital in a more meaningful way. It certainly raised awareness of the vital role the network and data-management systems now play in healthcare. Suddenly, patient care issues could not wait. There was much greater visibility, and networks needed to be more robust. Years ago, we were the only ones complaining about network downtime and changing network schemes. But now, no longer invisible, IT had become mission critical.

Additionally, IT staff was now expected to leave the cubicle and meet with their customers in person. With so many additional computers and technology, the need for interaction with clinical staff became a much bigger part of the job. I’ve seen plenty of IT folk in scrubs in the OR in the last few years when, not that long ago, such a sight was extremely rare. They are now stepping up and taking care of issues in person.

I have worked closely with many IT professionals that are skilled and efficient. They certainly understand the impact of outages much better now and will respond immediately when patient care is affected, which was not always the case years ago. Many of them provide good customer service and follow up to ensure that an issue has been resolved. These behaviors were always considered the strengths of biomed departments and the weaknesses for IT.

A Changed World

I will conclude by saying that, from my point of view, the world has changed. I’m not sure if our colleagues in IT were aware of how abused they were when we all got together to compare stories, but I suspect that those stories will taper off. My experiences may differ from those of other biomeds, but I hope they ring true for everyone. But no need to feel downhearted—we can still always trash talk our vendors!

Finally, let me add a disclaimer: I have been fortunate for the last 2 years to work in a brand-new, highly integrated hospital with a great IT department. Prior experience at other organizations form the basis for the observation of the evolving role of IT described in this article.

Michael O’Brien is a BMET with Kaiser Permanente at the Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Ore, and currently serves as secretary for the Oregon Biomedical Association.