By Joie N. Marhefka, PhD

At Penn State New Kensington, we require our biomedical engineering technology students to complete a 400-hour internship in a clinical engineering/HTM department prior to graduation. Students are typically at the site for 10 weeks, spending the full work day working with and shadowing members of the clinical engineering team.

We require the interns to see and do a wide range of activities, including performing preventive maintenance on different types of equipment; servicing medical equipment; viewing surgical procedures to gain experience on how the equipment is used, who uses it, and problems that they may encounter; and participating in equipment installation and acceptance testing. This experience benefits students in numerous ways—not the least of which is providing them with many opportunities to learn.

Gaining Real-World Experience

One of the most valuable aspects of internships is that they allow students to apply their classroom lessons in a real-world setting. After all, classroom and laboratory instruction may provide aspiring HTM professionals with the necessary theory and background, but there is no better way to learn technical skills than by performing them.

Specifically, internships allow students to see and work with different technologies—such as various types of imaging equipment (MRI, CT, etc.)—and obtain experience in the operating room setting, both of which are unavailable in a traditional classroom environment. Plus, students can working with some of the newest medical technologies being used in hospitals today.

Students are also able to gain practical troubleshooting experience during their internship. While we do teach a class in troubleshooting at Penn State New Kensington, the clinical environment provides a much more realistic setting for the students to experience troubleshooting. However, the internship provides so much more than just an opportunity to learn and practice technical skills. For starters, students are able to experience work in a professional environment, developing and practicing soft skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and time management.

Moreover, many supervisors and managers in the HTM field have stressed to me the importance of good communication skills. While we do cover and practice communication in the classroom, internships allow students to develop and apply techniques in a real-world environment—for instance, talking with nurses and tech support about real issues. The interns are also able to experience service calls and learn about the importance of, and procedure for, documentation of all PMs and repairs. Overall, the internship experience provides students with a better understanding of how the hospital and clinical engineering departments work prior to entering the workforce.

A Balanced Education   

Completing an internship can also aid students in other ways when job searching and starting new careers in HTM. In some instances, it can allow the student to get his or her foot in the door at a particular hospital. The internship can, in some ways, be a 10-week “interview” for both the student and the hospital (if that hospital has an open position). After all, students have 10 weeks to demonstrate both their technical skills and professionalism, rather than just the couple of hours allotted during an actual interview.

Further, the potential employer can better evaluate how a prospective employee fits in with the department over the course of the multi-week internship. If the student is motivated and performs well during the internship, for instance, it can often lead to a job offer. Plus, the internship also can provide the student with professional references from supervisors at its close, which can be a major asset in the job search.

Of course, internships also give students some professional and practical experience to list on a resume, as well as discuss during a job interview. And students with interships on their resumes likely have a leg up over candidates who have never worked or interned in HTM—an advantage that could boost their confidence during the job search. Another aspect that could make students feel more confident when interviewing for and starting a new job in HTM? Thanks to their internship, they’ve had the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills and to experience the workings of a clinical engineering department in a “learning environment.”

Internships can also aid in establishing mentor relationships as interning students can connect with individuals who can help with their career development. In fact, internships can also be valuable opportunities for the students to explore various aspects of HTM. Many students get to spend time in imaging, operating rooms, and various other departments during their internship. This gives the student a chance to start thinking about areas of interest and potential specialization, and it allows them to talk with people in those positions about career paths.

At Penn State New Kensington, for instance, the internship is the last class that biomedical engineering technology students take, although some students have taken advantage of opportunities to spend time in the hospital earlier—and they’ve found it to be worthwhile. Over the past few years, a number of our students have spent one day a week in the hospital during their last semester (or two semesters) of classes, observing PMs, repairs, and the overall operation of a clinical engineering department. This allows students to see things they aren’t able to see in the classroom, as well as to make connections between what they are learning in their classes and how they can apply it in a clinical environment.

Another advantage of getting students into the hospital earlier in the program is that it allows them to make sure that they are comfortable working in an HTM environment. It also enables students to get into a groove earlier in their internships, as the environment becomes familiarized. Although it’s not required for students to shadow or volunteer in the hospital prior to their official internship, those who have elected to do so have spoken highly of the benefits. I am hopeful that we will be able to get more students to take advantage of this type of opportunity in the future.

Further, most of our graduates at Penn State New Kensington say that the internship is where they learned the most. This is not surprising, given the wide variety of equipment and procedures that they are required to see and perform during the 400 hours, as well as the numerous opportunities to apply the knowledge and skills that they learned in class and labs.

Finally, a good internship gives the student an opportunity to not only practice technical skills, but to develop and apply soft skills, experience work in a professional environment, learn how a clinical engineering department functions, and gain references that are invaluable during the job search. In some cases, it can even lead to a student getting a job offer. For these reasons, I believe that an internship is an integral part of any education in HTM—and it’s certainly one we’ve had success with at my institution.

Joie N. Marhefka, PhD, is assistant teaching professor and biomedical engineering technology program coordinator at Penn State New Kensington in Western Pennsylvania. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].