This past September, the North Central Biomedical Association (NCBA) featured George Mills, director of the Department of Engineering at The Joint Commission, as the keynote speaker for its 22nd annual conference, a 3-day affair held at a major hotel in Duluth, Minn.

While this fact alone might not seem particularly impressive, consider that a handful of forward-thinking biomedical engineers launched the upper Midwest organization a mere 26 years ago with only 10 members, tremendous dedication, and enormous ambition. Judging from NCBA’s growth—both in membership numbers and geographic reach—they are exceeding their expectations.

Forum for Collaboration

In May 1989, the Midwest Medical Engineering Association was about to disband, but a core team of biomedical engineers was determined to keep the organization alive. Dave Pedersen, retired director of Biomedical Engineering/IT at Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria, Minn, together with James Skipper, Deborah Schweigert, Jim Hedlund, Vickie Snyder, and Bill Maras, met in Brainerd, Minn. Their brainstorming session resulted in the birth of NCBA.

Skipper, a retired biomedical manager who previously worked at Virginia Regional Medical Center in Virginia, Minn, says, “The impetus was to start a multistate association to include all BMETs from Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Iowa. There was a common desire for a forum to continue our education, training, and networking in this field.”

As the organization became better known, its numbers increased. By the end of the following year, the original membership of ten blossomed to 54. “It grew quickly when we got the word out,” says Pedersen, noting that hunger for knowledge and collaboration, as well as heavy promotion, helped fuel momentum.

Over the next few years, NCBA held quarterly meetings usually hosted by a local hospital, which provided tours of various departments, according to Skipper. NCBA also collaborated with local biomedical engineers and vendors who offered educational sessions on the latest techniques, devices, and industry issues.

By 1993, NCBA was ready to hold its first annual conference, a 1-day event that took place at Detroit Lakes Technical College in Minnesota. This initial conference featured three educational courses, a keynote speaker, and a small vendor show, followed by a short business meeting. Attendance was strong, with about 50 members turning out, Skipper says.

Membership Matters

Maintaining and growing membership depended on the efforts and dedication of the group’s founding members. Snyder, healthcare technology management (HTM) professional with Booz Allen Hamilton in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, served as one of the original leaders.

“During the early stages when I was on the board, I would send faxes to all the biomed departments we knew of in Minnesota as well as in nearby Iowa and North and South Dakota to get the word out,” she says. “We started to have service training as part of the [quarterly meetings], which brought more people to the conference as well.”

Maggie Berkey, senior specialty biomedical technician at Fairview Health Services in the Twin Cities, has been involved with NBCA since 2011 and currently serves as president. She notes that membership in the organization now extends well beyond biomedical engineering, and with good reason. “We recognize the value of a wide range of input, as did AAMI when they led the effort to change the name of our profession from biomed to healthcare technology management to encompass the ever-evolving work that our community is responsible for.”

Berkey points out that membership numbers are “fluid,” but now hover around 160. Quarterly meetings generally attract between 20 and 30 attendees, depending on the topic. “Our annual conference has been attended by over 100 technicians, leaders, and vendors the last few years,” she says. “We rely on our vendors to sponsor our events, as we are nonprofit and strive to keep our costs low to ensure financial limitations do not deter anyone from joining us.”

Students also factor heavily into the membership equation. “There are two biomed schools nearby. We try to get students interested in the organization,” Berkey says, emphasizing that they will form the core of the organization in years to come. “Membership in NCBA offers educational and networking opportunities as well as potential career opportunities.”

This year’s annual conference keynote speaker helped bolster NCBA’s efforts to support students: Mills donated a significant portion of his fee to start a scholarship fund. “This helps push us to further promote students,” Berkey says. “We know some of them will be hired by organizations that are not yet represented in NCBA. This is an opportunity to get the word out about NCBA. We want to reach as many people in the HTM community as possible. We want to show them our value and continue to grow not only our membership, but our collaboration in the HTM community.”

Hitting the Road

Although the organization has experienced steady growth, NCBA continues efforts to boost exposure. The group took a tip from Patrick Lynch, a member of the North Carolina Biomedical Association, who suggested NCBA travel to neighboring communities to generate interest in joining the group and promote the annual conference. This format offers those in more remote areas the opportunity to attend a meeting (minus the business portion) without the lengthy drive.

A small group headed to Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, S Dak, Berkey’s alma mater, for its first roadshow. “It was a great turnout,” she says. The organization partnered with Berkey’s former BMET instructor, Paul Syverson, to reach potential attendees, which included both students and local techs. The program included an overview of electronic medical records aimed at biomeds and a presentation by TLC, the local Fluke distributor, on biomedical testing equipment.

In 2001, NCBA gained statewide recognition thanks to Snyder’s diligence. She worked with then-Governor Jesse Ventura, who issued a proclamation celebrating Biomedical Technician Week in Minnesota. “We had celebrations at local venues that got people involved,” Snyder says.

The following year, NCBA partnered with AAMI during its annual meeting in Minneapolis. “They asked if we could find room monitors to assist during the conference. Those who volunteered were given a complimentary day at the conference for their efforts. To be included as a volunteer, you had to have an up-to-date membership. We had no problem getting volunteers and AAMI was thrilled.” The biomed week celebration has become a tradition as the NCBA continues to sponsor an annual get-together for all HTM professionals across the region.

For Berkey, securing Mills from the Joint Commission as NCBA’s 2015 annual conference speaker was a major coup. “We had a lot of big players at the annual conference, but this was a big deal. In the 5 years I’ve been involved with NCBA, this is one of the biggest accomplishments,” she says.

The Next Generation of Technicians

As with many organizations, getting people involved is one of the biggest challenges facing NCBA, according to Snyder. “However, I am starting to see a newer generation of technicians and they are interested in what is going on in the biomed world. The NCBA is a way for them to do that. But the challenge is getting the existing leaders involved and energized as well,” she says. “There needs to be value to what the NCBA is providing so [employers] can support their employees’ involvement. If that doesn’t happen, we have no members and we have no NCBA.”

Berkey noted that conducting interesting and information-packed quarterly meetings is key. While the business portion is the toughest sell—talk centers around financials, by-laws, and potential changes—the highlight of the meeting occurs when a vendor provides industry insight on a hot topic. “At the last meeting, Olympus did a presentation on a 3D scope,” Berkey says. “For the next meeting, we’ll visit a 350,000 square-foot surgery clinic center and three vendors will do presentations to highlight their companies.”

Snyder expressed some concern for the industry and NCBA with the impending loss of many long-time members. “We are going to see a lot of seasoned folks retire in the immediate future and with that, we could see a loss of the core membership. How do we backfill that?” she says. “I believe that the NCBA is financially sound. But to remain that way, we are going to need to find creative/innovative ways to connect with the next generation of technicians and to find ways that leaders are on board to support their employees’ involvement.”

Scott Bosch, NCBA past president and manager, Clinical Engineering Services and Medical Technology at Park Nicollet Health Services in the Twin Cities area, emphasizes the importance of continued collaboration with others in healthcare, including vendors. He points out that biomedical engineers play a vital role in delivering safe, accurate, consistent, reliable, and cost-effective healthcare. Working together with other hospital departments, such as clinical operations, information technology, purchasing and materials services, and project management helps enhance the final outcome.

As the profession evolves, integration with IT will also become a pivotal issue. “If you talk to five different hospitals, you’ll get five different answers about IT and HTM. Some departments are siloed, some have bridged the gap, and some are fully integrated,” Berkey says. “So much equipment is software-based now. Biomeds have been at the bedside and IT has been in the closet. This is not conducive to real-time resolutions.” Although she has no concrete plan for integration, Berkey realizes the inevitability—and the value—of integration between biomeds and IT.

Whatever the future brings, NCBA plans to continue on its present course. “We are eager to keep the HTM community alive and well and involved at the local and national levels. We recognize the value of collaboration and what it brings to the organization,” Berkey says. “We have to be strategic about boosting the profession. It’s our livelihood and goes way beyond 7 AM to 3:30 PM Monday through Friday.”

Phyllis Hanlon is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact chief editor Jenny Lower at [email protected].