For aspiring HTM professionals and biomed departments alike, internships can pay substantial dividends—provided that the focus is on learning

In the public eye, interns are often perceived as exploited volunteer workers, performing menial tasks for little or no pay and learning almost nothing about the industries they are trying to join. But in the HTM profession, at least, the reality is much different.

For aspiring biomed and clinical engineering students, internships are a vital link between their education and career goals. The clinical training experience they receive benefits them by providing an opportunity to refine their skills, gain field experience, network with others, and even get a foot in the door.

The organizations that sponsor interns gain substantial benefits as well. These students quickly become important contributors to biomedical departments, even as they are getting up to speed on policies, procedures, and expectations. For both students and biomed departments, internships can be a rewarding experience.

A Unique Opportunity

The VA healthcare system provides a unique opportunity for biomedical engineers to gain experience in healthcare technology management and to positively influence patient care within a medical facility. Renee M. Huval, MS, is interning through the VA’s Technical Career Field (TCF) Program for Biomedical Engineering in Greater Los Angeles. Only 20 positions are available nationwide each year, and all prospective interns must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering to be considered.

Huval started her internship in September 2013 after finishing graduate school and seeking a position that would provide a wide range of professional and technical activities and opportunity for growth. “The majority of experience gained while in the program is from being on-site, performing functions of a staff biomedical engineer in preparation to become chief of an in-house biomedical engineering department,” she says. “In turn, there’s opportunity to collaborate on projects with stakeholders within the medical center, other VA facilities, and the clinical engineering field at large.”

Through the program, Huval receives hands-on training and individual mentoring by experienced biomedical engineers in a hospital setting. Huval is the project lead for a hospital-wide upgrade of equipment that includes bedside monitors, telemetry, and vital signs monitors. All this equipment will be networked and interfaced with devices supporting the patient, as well as with a new electronic charting system linked to patient records.

In the course of her work on the project, she has taken part in technology assessments and contributed to equipment purchase planning and systems design. She has also helped to coordinate implementation with clinicians and vendors, and to manage project contracts. In the process, she has gained valuable supervisory skills.

In addition to the upgrade project, Huval helps run departmental performance reports, improve internal processes, and supervise technicians. She also serves on a national workgroup developing naming guidance for medical device inventory in the VA, and coordinates national educational teleconferences for VA staff. “The exposure is incredible,” she says, adding, “and this is only my first year!”

For Huval’s fellow intern, Clarice M. Balconi-Lamica, BSE, the best career option was to hone her professional skills and earn a wage before seeking a master’s or PhD degree. She applied to the TCF program and was accepted in 2012. “I chose the internship because it had substantial benefits: $20,000 for training and travel opportunities, an experienced preceptor to mentor me, and the opportunity to work in a hospital setting, creating positive impact through my engineering skills,” she explains.

Her internship began in Temple, Tex, where she worked in the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System. After about 18 months, she transferred to the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System for the remaining 6 months of her internship (notably, the program paid relocation expenses).

Her internship projects have ranged from small (generating memos from the chief engineer to the chief of nursing, for example) to huge (helping to open a new 250,000-square-foot community-based outpatient clinic in Austin, Tex). “There wasn’t really a line between an intern’s work and a mature biomedical engineer’s work,” she says. “I completed tasks given to me by the chief of biomedical engineering that benefited the department.”

Balconi-Lamica helped coordinate the installation of mammography, SPECT/CT, MRI, x-ray, and EKG units. She assisted in the assembly of vital signs roll-stands and EKGs, and helped technicians perform preventive maintenance on CT systems and ventilators. She acted as a medical equipment subject matter expert for root cause analysis and healthcare failure mode effect analysis teams, and generated reports for the documentation of biomedical engineering services and updated equipment inventory lists as needed. She also served as part of a national workgroup team for the documenting of all biomedical services at VA hospitals throughout the nation (some 150-odd facilities).

In addition to the work experience, all 20 of the VA interns across the country are given funding in addition to their salaries for professional development, with the opportunity to attend national conferences and core training events. After completion of the training, interns are converted to permanent positions in VA medical facilities.

GE Internships

An internship at GE Healthcare offers students hands-on experiences and the opportunity to work on challenging projects in the medical field. “We have had interns on the biomed side for about 5 years,” says Jenny Franke, HR manager/program coordinator at GE. “We partner with a school and often a professor or instructor for insight on who will be a good fit.” Interns learn how to deal with customers and are exposed to the hospital setting, work and fix equipment, and are often hired.

To be considered for the program, students must have a 3.0 grade point average or above in an electrical engineering discipline, still be in school, or have graduated within the last 6 months. They are paid, but receive no health benefits or paid time off.

For intern Charmaine Staggers, BMET1, the end result of her internship was a permanent job. “This one stood out because it was in the healthcare field and GE is a well-known company,” she says. Staggers’ learning environment took place in a multi-person shop working alongside three well-seasoned clinical engineers learning everything they could teach her. Projects included day-to-day clinical engineering services to the customer and large installations in the hospital, which helped her gain leadership skills, project management and planning abilities, equipment purchasing, and installation knowledge.

Staggers learned everything from wiring and multiple contactors, to training staff, deadlines, and schedules. Like other interns, Staggers’ experience was a true indicator of how she was going to perform on the job. It gave her the ability to showcase her knowledge, skills, talents, and personal attributes to potential employers.

For Credit Only

Joey Jones, MS, CBET, is the Biomedical Technology Systems/Healthcare Technology Management program coordinator and professor of studies at Madisonville Community College-Kentucky Community and Technical College Systems. The internship program there began in the early- to mid-1980s. Between 8 and 10 students are placed during each school year. They have interned with organizations from TriMedx, Aramark, GE, and Beckman Coulter, to local and regional hospitals and healthcare institutions, as well as with home medical equipment companies and dialysis centers. Students are not paid, but earn college credits.

“The student must master, at a minimum, 12 generalized clinical skill competencies as well as 14 specific clinical skill competencies involving certain medical technologies and associated test equipment,” Jones says. “There has to be evidence in the student’s clinical journal that all competencies have been successfully fulfilled. All activities have to be documented and performed under the supervision of the designated clinical site supervisor or other assigned evaluator.” A minimum of 120 contact hours of experiential, documented, and supervised clinical training experience is required of the students.

“The goal is to strengthen or enhance the student’s sense of responsibility, teamwork, professionalism, and confidence, as well as their role and responsibility in providing equipment services that assure safe and reliable utilization of the technology,” Jones explains. “The goal for students is to not only meet the expectations of the clinical site, but also to exceed their [own] expectations.” A clinical site supervisor once told Jones that the clinical training opportunity gave him the chance to re-evaluate his understanding of an internship, and because of that, the clinical experience was just as educationally rewarding for him as it was for the student.

An immediate job offer is not the main goal of an internship, says Barbara Christe, PhD, program director, Healthcare Engineering Technology Management, and associate professor, Engineering Technology Department, at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). “Most facilities mentor interns as a technique to give back to the profession,” she explains. “While employment may be a potential outcome, some facilities do not have an interest in adding staff at the particular time that the internship is provided. However, as we are a relatively small community, getting to know students who will become workers in the field in the future offers a networking opportunity that can pay off later.”

All students at IUPUI complete an internship at the end of their sophomore year in a credit-bearing course. Consequently, all graduates must have completed an internship and must be exposed to a wide variety of equipment and situations. Although a paid internship was the norm at IUPUI many years ago, most are not paid now. Students must work a minimum of 12 hours per week for the 15-week semester. Most put in about 20 hours per week in order to maximize the experiences they can absorb. Approximately 25 IUPUI students each year take part in internships.

 Tremendous Benefits

The internship program at Texas State Technical College (TSTC) has been in existence for nearly 4 decades. It places, on average, about 40 student each year. They work for a number of hospitals in Dallas, Temple, Killeen, Fort Worth, Corsicana, Tyler, and Waco, says Roger A. Bowles, MS, EdD, CMET, department chair/professor, Biomedical Equipment Technology Department at TSTC. “They also intern with Hologic, TriMedx, Modern Biomedical, Crothall, Aramark, Renovo Solutions, US Med-Equip in Houston, and Reliance Biomedical in Dallas,” Bowles adds.

Most of the internships are not paid positions, but there are a few assignments that do pay. “Usually as interns, they shadow senior biomedical equipment technicians. They may perform PMs on equipment and repair certain equipment under supervision. Most work 20 hours per week, but we do have a few full-time positions,” he says.

TSTC internships last for one semester (15 weeks). “The benefits to the interns are tremendous,” Bowles states. “They get solid work experience in a hospital environment. It gels their classroom and lab learning experiences.” Bowles says that the sponsor benefits as well, not only by gaining an extra set of hands during the internship, but more importantly, by being able to take an extended look at potential candidates before actually hiring them. “The employer can get a good idea from the internship experience of how the employee will fit in and of his or her experience level and ability,” he adds. “Many of our employers hire interns or former interns to fill full-time positions.”

When internships are unpaid, the onus is on the sponsor to ensure that the interns gain useful experience. “With unpaid interns, you have to be very careful about the work that you assign to them, and the focus is entirely on learning,” says Kenneth Maddock, vice president of Facility Support Services for Baylor Scott & White Health. Maddock has responsibility for technology management for the entire organization, which supports about 110,000 devices. His department has used interns for a long time.

“The type of work interns are assigned depends to an extent on their interest, but in general, we try to expose them to all areas of the business,” Maddock says. Interns spend time in as many areas as practical under the leadership of an experienced mentor, accompanying the technician as he or she explains the equipment, and assisting the technician in performing tasks. The mentor changes as the interns rotate through different areas. “Any work that is done is designed to educate students, and their work is checked out by the assigned technician before returning it to use,” Maddock explains. “Interns also participate in projects, such as new construction and new equipment installations, again under the leadership of an assigned technician.” In addition, they are also exposed to one or two leadership meetings.

The internships typically last 8 to 12 weeks, and managers are expected to communicate regularly not only with the interns, but also with the technician assigned to the interns. “The communication is not only focused on providing interns with feedback on what we have seen from them and where they may need to improve to maximize their value to an employer in the future, but to determine how we can improve our internship program,” Maddock says. For formal internships that are part of the intern’s educational requirement, the manager has to submit a report on the intern’s progress to the educational institution, which factors into the intern’s grade. “We contribute to someone’s learning and benefit the field by providing experience and education to those entering it,” Maddock says.

Conclusion

The clinical setting is an environment that cannot be duplicated in the classroom. The culture and structure of a healthcare organization, the interactions of staff, and the application of equipment in patient care are all facets of the educational experience that can’t be provided in any way other than through internships. Best of all, internships pay continuing dividends not just to the intern and sponsor, but to the profession as a whole.

Nina Silberstein is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact editorial director John Bethune at [email protected]