How to identify and develop the next generation of HTM professionals

By Rob Cermak

The healthcare technology management (HTM) profession is facing a crisis at a time when healthcare organizations need these professionals more than ever. The problem? As the majority of biomeds near retirement age, there are not enough millennials to fill their shoes.

In fact, among 24×7’s HTM Salary Survey 2020 respondents, 40% of HTM professionals were aged 55-and-older, with 22% over the age of 60. The number of millennials represented in the survey—those under the age of 35—has declined over the years, with the age group dropping from 20% to 17%, year-over-year, in 2020.

And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of bioengineers and biomedical engineers is projected to grow 5% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. So, this begs the question: How can we sustain this field, which is critical to healthcare organizations and patient care delivery?

To start, let’s review the history of the profession, what factors have led to the current situation, and what the industry must do in order to attract and retain a new generation biomeds.

The Beginning of Biomed

The establishment of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) in the late 1960s solidified the fact that medical device technology had a permanent role in clinical care settings. It also reinforced the need for biomed technologists who could maintain technologies that were growing in diversity and complexity.

Commonly, biomed technology departments started out as extensions of hospitals’ facilities maintenance departments. As such, skillful tradespersons with curiosity and ambition for learning often moved into biomed technologist roles. 

At the same time, semiconductor proliferation was beginning, which led to the expansion of two- and four-year college programs for electronics. Graduates of these programs often secured positions as biomed techs, which was viewed as a “high-tech” application of their skills. 

An Evolving Profession

Over time in the 1980s and 1990s, many specialized biomed technologist programs were created, which taught clinical and other applicable sciences required at a time when hospitals were rapidly adopting new medical devices. These specialized degree programs expanded knowledge beyond electronics so that the wide range of equipment—from simple centrifuges to complex anesthesia workstations—could be maintained safely and effectively. 

As the proliferation of technology expanded in all directions, the field quickly saw specialization and evolution occurring within the role. For instance, asset management became paramount to purchase decision-making—thus, clinical engineering was generally a segregated role within biomed departments.

Moreover, the servicing of imaging equipment required specialized training and skillsets, often leading to the adoption of imaging specialists within the group. Lastly, medical devices, in general, became increasingly sophisticated, relying more on PC/network technology. This led to biomeds needing to expand their information technology (IT) skillsets, as well as their growing collaboration with and reliance on hospital IT departments.

A Field in High Demand

Broadly speaking, technology labor shortages are affecting U.S. and worldwide markets, with biomeds included in this macro-economic backdrop. But, more specifically, many believe that the current biomed labor shortage is the result of baby boomers retiring, as well as alternate technology industries attracting new prospective students away from medical device support.

It seems that the explosion of the personal computer, internet, and software development have coincided with the decline in new student interest in medical device servicing. The new “shiny” technology captivating the interest of the masses is no longer the marvel of life-saving medical devices. It has been replaced with software solutions and all the technologies that support them. 

The Current State of Education

As the industry is challenged to hire qualified new employees, educational standards have changed as well. While ’80s- and ’90s-era biomeds commonly held college associate and bachelor’s degrees, there has been an uptick in specialized certificate biomed programs, as well as military veterans with applicable skills and experience transferring into the role. But even as the broadening of education and experience entryways has occurred, many specialized biomedical technologist programs are suffering from low enrollment—or they’re folding altogether.

Many believe that recent high school graduates have been educated and entertained differently than past generations, which shapes their career interests post-high school.  Textbooks and erector sets have been replaced with search engines and software-based apps and entertainment. Hands-on activity, even on high-end technology, may not be as interesting as creating clever software code that the masses may instantly recognize and appreciate. In short, PC and internet careers have exploded and reduced the pool of prospective biomeds.

Attracting and Retaining the Next Generation

Millennials have knowledge and skills that can be leveraged in the HTM profession. Firstly, they’re self-sufficient, agile learners. They search the internet for instant answers to their questions and are confident to apply their learning immediately. 

Secondly, millennials didn’t adapt to information technology later in life like the generations preceding them; rather, they’ve been inundated with IT since birth. As the lines of medical device and PC/server technology merge, millennials are in a superior position to leverage their lifelong IT skillsets within the medical device industry and really flourish in this regard.

While there are many things the industry can do to attract new talent to the role, some of the most vital efforts include improved role awareness, entry-level access, and adaptation to the new learning style preferences of upcoming generations. 

From an awareness standpoint, we can no longer wait for candidates to find us. We must go out and educate high schoolers, trade school students, and college students about HTM’s wonderful mission and the benefits derived from a career in biomedical technology. After all, HTM is in line with what millennials already care about—society and their role in it. Biomeds perform meaningful work so those of us in the field must get the word out regarding this very rewarding career.

Furthermore, we need to ensure that entry-level positions are not exclusively held for graduates of specialized schools. As stated earlier, enrollment is down in this regard, so fewer and fewer grads are available. In contrast, so many employees outside of medical servicing have highly desirable and transferable attributes. Formal mentorship and apprenticeship programs need to be the norm, not the exception. The industry should think deeply about the transferable skills needed versus the narrow classical hiring view focused on education and industry experience.

Lastly, the next generation of new employees will be disillusioned quickly if they land as biomedical technologists only to find access to information and training to be lacking and slow to obtain. To overcome this challenge, there must be investments in systems and partners that enable up-to-the-minute information that is easily accessible and searchable.

All stakeholders have roles to play in the recruitment and retention of new professionals in the field, including trade schools, manufacturers, hospitals, and current HTM professionals. For instance, lowering entry-level access into the role may be a hiring manager’s prerogative, but existing biomeds willing to mentor new employees with lower experience levels are equally necessary. 

AAMI’s Solution to the Shortage

One unique approach to recruiting millennials to the field—and, thus, addressing the biomed shortage—is via apprenticeships. In March, the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) approved the creation of a modern apprenticeship program for prospective biomedical equipment technicians (BMETs). The new program, launched by AAMI, replaces a four-year BMET program that was established in the 1990s.

Described by AAMI as a program with “no student debt,” employers cover the expense of training and certification with support from the DoL, and participating companies are offered state tax credits for taking on apprentices. 

Through the program, students embark on 4,000 to 6,000 hours of paid, on-the-job training in safety, electronics, anatomy, information technology, and more. BMETs with decades of experience teach the students, facilitating a transition of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Throughout their training, students can earn AAMI’s Certified Associate in Biomedical Technology (CABT) certification for professionals entering the BMET field and certification in IT fundamentals. Program graduates earn a certificate from AAMI and the DoL, affirming that they have completed training that meets a national standard of excellence. To many in the field, it’s a major step to bringing new blood to the HTM sector.

Collaboration Is Key

In summation, medical technologies continue to grow in variety and complexity as healthcare practitioners perform more advanced life-changing and life-saving procedures. While the clinicians at the patient bedside are at the frontlines of care, they are reliant on biomeds behind the scenes to keep the medical devices they use functioning safely and effectively.

While millennials, in general, have skills that are well suited to a career in biomedical technology, lack of awareness, knowledge and interest is holding them back. With their overall preference toward a profession in the online realm versus hands-on technology, many people in this age group may be reluctant to embark on a career that appears antiquated.

Unfortunately, we are teetering on the edge of disaster as HTM staff shortages increase each year. Now is the time for the industry to come together to establish ways, such as AAMI’s apprenticeship program, to attract new blood to a field that’s so vital to healthcare delivery. After all, for the industry to survive—and thrive—all stakeholders must become part of the solution.

Rob Cermak is senior director, field service operations at Dräger. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].

Sidebar: One Company’s Approach to Biomed Development

As a provider of medical and safety technology, Telford, Pa.-based Dräger plays an active role in biomedical technologist education, training, and support. Specifically, the Dräger Training Academy trains customer biomedical technologists side-by-side with the company’s own new Dräger technician hires. This collaborative learning environment facilitates networking/expert relationship building for future support and/or collaboration.

Traditionally, Dräger Academy coursework was delivered only at the company’s national training headquarters, requiring students to attend approximately a week’s worth of coursework for each device. Coursework included a combination of lecture and hands-on peer-reviewed exercises.

To increase classroom capacity and accessibility, Dräger is transferring most classes to a hybrid approach, where a days’ worth of lectures can be remotely accessed by students, reducing their physical travel to just a few days to complete the lab practical session.

With regards to improving the support to IT-centric product training, such as vital signs monitors, Dräger provides a weeklong academy course on network fundamentals. This model-agnostic bridge training is designed for the traditional biomed who lacks IT skillsets necessary to effectively support vital signs monitors.

Dräger also maintains a presence at most national and regional biomed seminars, and often provides subject matter experts to lecture at workshops held during these events. Additionally, the company is actively investigating apprenticeship programs and outreach to trade schools.