Barbara Christe, PhD

Barbara Christe, PhD

DeVry University and Brown Mackie College (both with campuses across the US) have announced substantial closures of their HTM-related academic programs. As institutions discontinue technician/technologist training programs, several people have asked me to speculate regarding closure causes.

Initially, I emphasized the challenges associated with our relatively unknown discipline and our inability to attract students to the major. Other educators have postulated ideas centered around traditionally aged college students and their changing career expectations. However, I wonder if another underlying issue is a core challenge.

Before I identify what I perceive as a unique HTM-related hurdle, let me describe some common relationships between corporate America and academia. For many institutions and students, corporate partnerships extend beyond the employment of graduates, featuring scholarships and program sponsorships. Some affiliations are strictly focused on innovation and research, sharing faculty talent and student manpower in corporate research projects. Other associations are more service-focused—such as Johnson & Johnson, which support nursing programs and students, thus promoting an overall improvement in the human condition.

Regardless of the purpose, corporate connections draw positive press, increase student enrollments, and offer institutions—especially public ones—much-needed funds. In addition, the ability for a program to thrive may depend on these financial arrangements.

As an example of the power of corporate relationships, the motorsports engineering program in my school enjoys a million-dollar partnership with Dallara, raising the visibility of the program and offering superior academic experiences using state-of-the-art equipment. Other collaborations for Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) motorsports engineering include well-known companies like Penske and Lucas Oil, which offer program donations and internships for students.

With this corporate-academic framework in mind, let’s explore the current state of HTM-related academic programs and corporate partnerships. In 2005, I sought to create a bachelor’s degree at my school. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education set clear expectations: If I wanted to create this degree, I must locate external funding. Fortunately, Aramark made a significant donation of $100,000 to allow the baccalaureate program to move forward. However, that was more than 10 years ago. Some government funds have created a few HTM-related associate degree programs, but I am not aware of any other major corporate partnerships in our discipline.

The only connections I have with some major corporations are hallway conversations at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), where I ask for business cards and talk about potential collaborations. Follow-up has been completely fruitless, even to place my graduates as employees.

As I lament regularly, I offer one of only a few baccalaureate programs in the country, awarding a Purdue University degree with a first-rate national reputation; yet I struggle to make corporate connections of any kind. While I maintain strong, synergistic relationships with clinical sites around Indianapolis and the state, the lack of corporate partnerships is painfully obvious to my administration and myself.

With this in mind, I have been left with this question: Do corporations associated with the HTM profession have an incentive to promote and support academic programs, as modeled in other disciplines? After careful reflection, I believe the converse is true: Perhaps some corporations benefit from a shortage of trained technicians in our field. Perhaps the HTM repair/service/support model promotes dependency on a few skilled workers and disincentivizes academic collaborations that may increase graduate production.

Like I mentioned earlier, some third-party service providers have reached out to me, and we work together in small ways to increase the number of trained technicians/technologists. Understandably, many of these collaborative activities are focused narrowly on their employees. However, I believe these organizations may lack the financial depth and associated philanthropic infrastructure essential to broad and substantial support.

Our professional society has tried to fill academic fiscal gaps, offering funds for course development and recruiting tools. The literature created for the IamHTM campaign has been extremely helpful to academic programs. In addition, the scholarships AAMI offers to students from all institutions are supportive steps. But AAMI’s pockets are not deep—and their actions limited by the scope of their mission.

To return to my example of our motorsports program partnership with Dallara, enrollment in that major is up 20% from last year, with the majority of students coming from outside of Indiana, generating an additional $10k in tuition per student per semester, which is a highly valued achievement. While I recognize industrial partnerships may not be directly related to increased enrollments, positive publicity certainly contributes to the success of the IUPUI motorsports engineering program.

As an industry, could hospitals, outside service providers, and professional societies insist on academic support from corporate entities similar to the relationships fostered in other fields? If collaborations with corporations are not possible in our field, then we must identify and implement other mechanisms to support academic programs—or they will close as we have seen this year. We know a large portion of our HTM workforce is retiring in the next five years.

What is the transition plan to train technicians to enter the employment pipeline? A pipeline, after all,  that just became narrower with program closures.

Barbara Christe, PhD, is associate professor and program director of healthcare engineering technology management at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and a member of 24×7′s editorial board