Why service professionals must be language interpreters

By Joseph J. Panichello

We biomeds and x-ray service engineers possess many skills that allow us to perform our jobs effectively. Primarily, we understand the principles of electron flow and are familiar with common circuits used in electronic devices. We also have some knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, so we know the purpose and function of medical equipment, in addition to being handy with tools. Applying our learned skills, we can diagnose and repair common failures that can occur with medical instrumentation.

However, in order to perform our jobs effectively, we must complete one vital task: play detective. Before attempting a repair, a service tech should know precisely what happened when the equipment failed so that he or she can focus on a specific area to begin troubleshooting.

We must gather the minute details of the failure, especially in the cases of intermittent failures. Without detailed knowledge about the equipment breakdown, we are simply performing standard tests in hopes of finding the problem. If the equipment checks out OK, we cannot be confident that the problem will not return.

Navigating the Challenges

The best way to gain information about the failure is to question the person who was using the equipment at the time of the breakdown. It is helpful to know, for example, how the unit was being used (the mode of operation), or to know what happened prior to the breakdown.

Even if the problem turns out to be a blown fuse, it is important to identify how the equipment was being used in order to gain a better understanding of when things went awry. In doing so, I will be more confident in the repair.

Nevertheless, challenges arise when a non-technical person describes the event. It’s no surprise that many healthcare workers are not technically oriented and do not always provide accurate information about an equipment failure. Unfortunately, misinformation can lead a service tech in the wrong direction while troubleshooting a problem, which greatly adds to the length of the service call. This is especially true for those of us who perform remote (phone) support.

It is easy to understand why this is so: Radiologic technologists, nurses, and other healthcare workers are not required to understand the details of equipment operation to do their jobs. Instead, these professionals must attend to patients’ needs, first and foremost. Centering their attention on the patient allows them to provide the overall best care. As a result, they likely are not really paying attention to the equipment they are using. Rather, they view the equipment just as a tool to aid them in performing their duties.

Moreover, many workers are self-proclaimed “technophobes.” So when a biomed arrives onsite for a repair, or gets on a phone call for technical support, he or she should possess the language skills necessary to take an account of an equipment failure as explained by the equipment operator, translate it, and then use that information to investigate the failure. As such, biomeds must also be language interpreters. For me, this is a challenging, yet enjoyable, part of my job. In fact, I have come to look forward to hearing the accounts given by equipment users.

The Diagnosis Is in the Details

You may remember the radio series Car Talk, where two auto mechanics (brothers “Click” and “Clack”) diagnosed automotive problems based on the description given by the caller. The series was great, not only because we learned a little about cars, but also because of the oft-outrageous descriptions of car troubles the callers provided. Their attempts at recreating the sounds of a failing motor, a noisy wheel bearing, or other mechanical breakdowns were hilarious. They were key to the show’s popularity.

Likewise, I enjoy the accounts given by healthcare workers. Unashamedly, I encourage them to give me all the details. “What do you think is happening with your machine?” I ask. Servicing equipment throughout the workday can become routine, so I look forward to a lively diversion. Interacting with equipment users provides that much-welcomed break. My challenge is trying to maintain composure while the tech is giving his or her “animated” version of what happened.

Some translations are easy. When they say, “My cord has a ‘short’ in it,” I intuitively know that the power cord has a broken conductor and that they are actually experiencing an “open” (unless they are tripping a wall breaker). When I get a call from an EKG tech, for example, telling me that his machine is “out of ink,” I know from experience what he is saying.

Translation: The unit is not printing, and we biomeds know the problem is with the printhead (or recording paper), since machines don’t use ink anymore. These translations are easy because we’ve heard them so many times.

Other translations, however, are more tricky. Once, a mobile x-ray tech called me for phone support. She said, “I have a bad Hoyer!” My first thought: “Shouldn’t you see a doctor for that?”  After further discussion, I came to understand that the lift for the tube-head (aka: the Hoyer)—in reality, a gas piston—was broken, and the tube was stuck in position. In this instance, I required more advanced translating skills.

Later, I Googled “Hoyer” and learned that it’s a name for a patient lift that was invented by Ted Hoyer. It is used to help disabled patients get in and out of bed. So, I added this phrase to my Technical-Plain English translation dictionary.

Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous difficult translations. Some of the most memorable include: “a floating membrane” (problem with a keypad), “board not registering” (DR panel connectivity issue), “I checked my ‘stickies’” (slang for electrodes), “machine shooting blanks” (no exposure), “bad plunger” (broken exposure switch) and “snowy image.”

With phone support, time is of the essence. We need to take the call, narrow the problem as quickly as possible, and then move on to the next call. Consequently, remote support requires special language conversion skills. Here, the most basic language works best. For instance, I have found that referring to colors and shapes is very effective when troubleshooting over the phone.

No insult intended—it just works. If on a call, and I want a user to restart a unit, I ask them to press the “black, rectangular-shaped button on the top of the machine, wait 10 seconds, and then press the same black, rectangular button again.” By using this rudimentary language, we get the job done faster.

Later, I might ask if the user had completed the restart sequence. And, sometimes, I’ll get this answer: “Yes, but I’m not sure I waited for exactly 10 seconds!” Obviously, I need a better way to convey time—counting out loud with the caller, perhaps.

Of the many skills required for our jobs, good translation skills are essential for quick diagnoses and good repair. That’s why biomeds and x-ray service engineers should try to be good language interpreters. My advice: Take time to interact with your customers, encourage them to give all the details of an equipment failure, and allow yourself to have a little fun with the job.

Joseph J. Panichello is the author of X-ray Repair, which is currently in its third edition. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].