Biomed Versus IT, or Biomed and IT?

 Rodney P. Severson, CBET

Connecting biomedical equipment to an in-house network is not an easy task, as most biomeds realize. Years ago, biomedical equipment was limited to certain areas of the hospital or clinic, such as intensive care units (ICUs), surgical operating rooms (ORs), electroencephalogram (EEG) labs, or cardiac cath labs. Most of the biomedical equipment in these areas came from the same vendor and had some type of proprietary way of communicating with each other, if they communicated with each other at all. This made it easy for in-house biomeds: All they would have to worry about was the equipment and the cabling that tied it all together. It was a nice, closed system, with quick and easy configuring, no Internet protocols, no subnets, and no viruses; in-house biomeds did not care what DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) meant, and perhaps the best part was that there was little, if any, contact with the hospital’s information technology (IT) staff.

All that has changed, since it is now necessary for all patient data to get to the clinician in an easy and accessible way, and as the hospital industry goes paperless, connecting biomedical equipment to the in-house network is a necessity. To that end, biomeds’ independence within ICUs, ORs, and other areas is no longer viable. The biomed department now must work not only with vendors, nurses, and physicians, but also with the IT department.

This sounds simple, and, by all rights, it should be; one would think the biomed and IT departments have a lot in common and, therefore, should get along quite well. The fact is, the two departments do have a lot in common—and that is the biggest problem. Both departments have technical expertise that crosses over to the other department’s responsibilities. This may cause problems. For example, if the biomed department connects something to the in-house network without consulting the IT department, it can cause major networking problems. If, on the other hand, the IT department installs biomedical equipment in the hospital without consulting the biomed department, the equipment may not have been safety-checked or entered into the biomed equipment database. These oversights can cause major patient safety and accreditation concerns.

So how can the two departments work well together? The answer is communication. The two departments must communicate often, and the department managers must be aware of what each department does and of each department’s limitations; most important of all, the department’s personnel must not be afraid to ask each other for help. These suggestions sound simple, but remember the unwritten definition of a hospital: a building with a series of kingdoms tied together by a common heating system. The two departments must look at each other as allies, not adversaries. While biomeds may know more about the equipment and its capabilities, IT specialists know more about network switches, cables, and the capabilities and capacity of the in-house network; both need each others’ expertise.

So, how do you start to communicate if the biomed department does not have a good relationship with IT? It’s like anything else: You have to work at it. Talk to your IT department. Ask how things are going, and tell them if you know you’re going to tie equipment to the network and need the department’s help. Make sure biomed department staff have network training—not so the department can handle all the IT issues associated with biomedical equipment, but enough so that the two departments can communicate in an intelligent manner. This, of course, will not solve all issues; but if the two departments have a good relationship, the IT department may not get annoyed the next time a biomed tech meets an IT tech in the hallway and says, “Hey, can you help me? I have 12 digital EEG systems coming in next week, and they all have to be tied to the network, and a server has to be installed—is that a problem?” 24×7

Rodney P. Severson, CBET, is a biomedical equipment specialist III at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

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