When the law firm he worked for closed its doors, Jon Mueller was eager to return to his lifelong passion for science and electronics. So he enrolled in the biomedical engineering program at North Seattle College, later taking an internship at Swedish Hospital and Medical Center. Although the internship provided valuable hands-on experience, he eventually realized that ongoing education, networking, and job leads might best be found through a professional organization. He decided the Washington State Biomedical Association (WSBA) was the place to fill that need.

According to Mueller, professional societies like the WSBA promote professionalism, provide a quality source of continuing education for its membership, and offer mentoring from veterans in the field. “Professional societies also provide individuals with a community that can help with common issues and problems,” he says. “I took the opportunity to join WSBA as a student because biomedical equipment is constantly evolving and I realized I would need a way to stay informed about those changes after my formal schooling ended.” 

Purpose

In 1983, a small group of biomedical engineers in the Seattle area formed the nonprofit WSBA to offer members an opportunity to socialize with like-minded individuals, foster career growth, and keep abreast of happenings related to the field. Little information about those formative years exists, but the current leadership is trying to change that picture.

Christopher Walton, CBET, who recently retired from the biomedical field, serves as the WSBA’s treasurer and has been pulling together pieces of information that will help preserve the association’s history. To pave the way for the WSBA’s future and ensure continuity between the leadership, Walton created an Officer’s Handbook that captures numerous details about the organization’s structure and operations.

Growing Numbers

During the last 3 to 5 years, the WSBA’s membership has grown substantially, according to Walton. “When I started with the group about 5 years ago, there were only about 60 paid members,” he says. “We are now more than 200 paid members, including corporate members. We have more than 500 people on our email subscription list.”

Attendance at monthly meetings usually hovers around 30, although it has reached as high as 50, depending on the topic and venue. “Interstate Battery had one meeting at Bob’s Burger and Brew. We had to limit attendance to that one,” Walton reports.

Better management, enhanced advertising efforts, high-quality educational seminars and symposiums, and more support from third-party companies account for the bump in membership, according to Walton.

The WSBA’s sponsor list includes many well-known companies, including AAMI, Fluke, GMI, Philips, Pacific Medical, SpaceLabs, Stryker, Welch Allyn, and several others. These vendors provide support by sponsoring meetings and sometimes make presentations related to the biomedical engineering field. “If they present at one of our monthly meetings, we have to make sure they balance the sales of products against educational content for our members,” Walton says.

Geographic Challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing the WSBA is the state’s size—360 miles from east to west and 240 miles from north to south, which makes it difficult for all members to attend meetings. “Most of the activity has been in western Washington, but there were times when the folks in eastern Washington had a stronger presence,” Walton says. He notes that the WSBA is considering creating chapters to involve more individuals on the eastern side of the Cascade mountains and also in nearby Oregon.

Currently, the WSBA has a reciprocal agreement with the Oregon association that allows members of each organization to attend the other’s events for free, but distance stands as a major roadblock. “We want to do more with them, but it’s hard to figure this out from a practical standpoint,” Walton says. “This is the same situation with the biomeds in eastern Washington. It’s a 5-hour drive from Spokane to Seattle.”

The WSBA continues to experiment with better ways to communicate with members who live in remote regions of the state. The organization recently purchased a Polycom voice station and an account to hold tele-chats using an 800 number. “This is all about trying to figure out how to hold meetings without having members travel too far and not taking an entire day out of their weekends with their families,” Walton says. When the WSBA recently used the system, one of the members from eastern Washington participated. “He never would have driven 5 hours. To get statewide participation, we need to find more ways to reach people.”

Next Generation

The WSBA has developed strong relationships with public colleges in the area that have biomedical technician programs. The association provides grants for equipment purchase and also offers students a discount membership. “The students come to the meetings to learn more about what goes on in the profession and meet supervisors and third-party service companies. They often get internships and jobs by talking to folks at the meetings,” Walton says. “It’s difficult to get face time with department managers. This helps students get a foot in the door.”

Walton is personally involved in the academic programs in the area, serving as chairman of the technical advisory committee for a biomedical program and giving career talks for every new class entering the program. “We are talking about doing presentations at high schools and trying to get more women involved. A lot of women are in management but are not technicians,” he says.

Student membership in the WSBA is approximately 20%. Kimberly Rahman, a student at North Seattle College, joined the organization in anticipation of forming new professional relationships with veterans in the industry. “I really want to be exposed to as much in the biomed field as possible. With meetings hosted occasionally at local manufacturing sites and each one highlighting new equipment I could be working on or using to troubleshoot potential problems, this is a great venue in which to keep learning,” she says.

“Keeping up with professional memberships I feel will keep you in the loop of what’s happening in your local biomed community,” Rahman adds. “As I become more immersed in the biomed field, I think it will be nice to have others in the field with whom to collaborate.”

The WSBA’s current president, Brandon Keith, CBET, also became acquainted with the association as a student. During his internship, his supervisor convinced him to attend a meeting and to become involved. He accepted the challenge, and soon became president-elect before taking the helm in 2012. “I thought it was a good choice for me. It’s important to attract students and get the younger generation involved. They bring new blood and a new perspective to the organization,” he says.

The Future

Going forward, the WSBA’s board would like to promote more active participation in the association. One way to accomplish this is to reconsider the traditional organizational structure of president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. To this end, current leadership conducted a task analysis to break down all the responsibilities associated with running the organization.

“It was pretty obvious that too many tasks were on the plates of too few people,” Walton says. “Now, we are trying to see if we can spread out those things over a larger number of people. We want to create other positions with smaller responsibilities. We want to figure out ways not to tie people up too much. We are trying to redefine roles and responsibilities so that no one person has too much on his or her plate.”

As far as the future of the industry is concerned, Walton sees home healthcare and interconnectivity as major factors in the years to come. The aging population and skyrocketing cost of health care will push patients out of the hospital setting more quickly and into the home, where medical devices will provide real-time monitoring. “Interconnectivity is huge,” he says. “We are connecting devices together in ways never imagined. I am not sure our biomed community is prepared for this. Our community colleges are not teaching about interconnectivity.”

Devices on the market today connect patients at home with medical facilities, but are subject to wear and tear. “Biomeds could be involved in fixing these devices,” Walton says.

But these technologically advanced devices are also vulnerable from a security standpoint. Take, for instance, a hard drive that contains personal patient data. “This data is going across the airways. Who will manage the security of transmission?” Walton asks. “Biomeds of the future need to reinvent themselves. Biomeds need to know how to market their departments and how to communicate to upper management. They need computer/networking skills they never had before, and they need to understand the business of the biomed department or they will be outsourced. We need to add such courses in our biomed programs.”

Technology will also help with the WSBA’s efforts to involve more biomeds from across the state by expanding its electronic offerings. The organization regularly videotapes its meetings and has experimented with recording sessions at the annual symposium. Those event recordings will be posted in the members-only section of the website to enable those who can’t be physically present to participate in the goings-on.

As the organization moves forward, Keith intends to keep the content fresh and exciting so members continue coming back. In 10 years, Keith anticipates that a new generation will step up to the reins. As seasoned biomeds retire, it’s important to transition and adapt to a changing environment where technology is a central component of the job, according to Keith. The WSBA aims to serve as a valuable asset to biomedical engineers, continuing to provide educational, networking and social opportunities, as well as a little fun along the way.

Phyllis Hanlon is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact editorial director John Bethune at jbethune@allied360.com.