Standardization has become a mainstream philosophy for today’s health care institutions. Standardized processes, equipment, and protocols help to reduce error, increase efficiency, and decrease costs. But in some cases, particularly those involving a field’s fundamentals, standardization can be difficult to achieve. For this reason, confusion persists in the biomedical engineering technology world, where there are no standard titles, programs, or educational curriculums.
“AAMI [the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation] is trying to initiate some discussions. That’s as close as we’ve come,” says Barbara Christe, MS, program director of biomedical engineering technology and associate professor in the engineering technology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The confusion impacts students, who may choose the wrong educational program for their long-term goals, as well as employers, who cannot always be certain of a prospective hire’s quality without some research.
“Employers find it hard to predict what they are getting when they put an ad in the paper for a candidate with an associate’s degree because the answer varies depending on the school,” Christe says.
Biomedical equipment technicians have a number of pathways they can take on their career path, from military training to 2-year vocational and college programs to 4-year university degrees—and they are not all the same. Students are therefore challenged to select schools that can help adequately prepare them for employment and a successful career path; employers are challenged to understand the capabilities of candidates, avoiding assumptions based on simple evidence of a vocational certificate or degree.
Things may get even more difficult moving forward as the educational waters have been muddied with an increase in for-profit enterprises. Driven by an entrepreneurial desire to take advantage of the revenue opportunities that exist in health care education, some schools do not necessarily offer the education and employment opportunities advertised. Suspect accreditations, inadequate curriculums, and incomplete coursework can lay waste to student and employer investment. Proper research on the part of both can help to avoid making a choice that can cost more money and/or time in the future.
Checking the credentials of the school and/or program’s accrediting body can help to identify potential problems immediately. Schools cannot receive federal financial aid without accreditation, so every school has some type. The problem is that the accrediting body might not actually provide real value.
“Some of these schools that pop up are accredited by all these different agencies, but some of them aren’t real agencies,” says Roger A. Bowles, MS, EdD, CBET, professor and department chair, biomedical equipment technology, at Texas State Technical College in Waco. “So you have to keep up with the accreditation because everybody is accredited by somebody, but not all of them mean something.”
William Phillips, PhD, national associate college dean for engineering and information sciences, DeVry University, Arlington, Va, suggests that regional accreditation and program-specific accreditation provide good insight into a school’s quality.
Regional accreditation, awarded by one of six bodies of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), often indicates a solid school, having proven its overall rigor; other institutions in higher education are more likely to accept transfer credits from a school accredited by CHEA. “Regional accreditation is the most rigorous for an institutional accreditation,” Phillips says.
For biomedical engineering, one of the top program accreditations comes from ABET Inc, Baltimore, through its technology accreditation commission. The program is voluntary and unrelated to financial aid; rather, it focuses on coursework.
“ABET is program-based,” Christe says. “They look at the curriculum. They look at tests, homework, and laboratory experiences. They watch videotape of students performing projects.”
At some institutions, such as DeVry and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, programs are expected to achieve ABET accreditations. Others, more numerous, find the process too expensive, time consuming, and inflexible. ABET curriculum requirements may not match those of the state or the institution.
“ABET accreditation would require us to change our curriculum as far as the balance of technical versus academic records, and our advisory committee doesn’t want that,” Bowles says. In addition, the expense does not fit into a tight budget, an economic situation faced on many campuses today.
Lack of ABET accreditation has less of an impact on transfer credits than lack of regional accreditation. While the issue may be moot for students with limited options, those who foresee pursuing a career path with advancement opportunities should consider whether a school’s units can be used in the pursuit of a higher degree.
Find the Fundamentals
Though accreditations do not necessarily dictate curriculums and despite the lack of standardization in the industry, there are some fundamentals that are typically found in established, respected biomed education programs. Christe suggests that reputable programs generally follow the AAMI certification content. This includes anatomy and physiology; public safety in the health care facility; essentials of electricity, electronics, and solid-state devices; medical equipment function and operation; and medical equipment problem-solving. “What I’ve heard over the last 5 or 6 years from BMET employers is that they want people who know how to think, how to solve problems, and how to adapt to a variety of situations,” Phillips says.
Four-year programs often have a broader scope, incorporating arts and humanities, mathematics, life sciences, and communications.
While 4-year university programs are more likely to provide this expansive education, shorter vocational programs, however, may better prepare the student to leap right into repair.
Ideally, with any program, the biomed student will be prepared to enter the workforce. With the dramatic changes occurring within the industry, employers may worry about whether curriculums are keeping up. Today’s biomed often deals with computer and telecommunications networks more than biomeds of the past, even just 5 or 10 years ago.
Exposure to these newer areas will vary with the school. Some programs alter their curriculums every few years; others less frequently. The biomedical equipment technology program at Texas State Technical uses an advisory board of employer companies that meets annually and one comprised of junior-level technicians that meets every 3 years to discuss job requirements.
“Because of these boards, we’ve changed our curriculum three or four times over the past 6 years, including adding several computer networking classes,” Bowles says.
Other schools alter their curriculums in a rhythm with accreditation, particularly when program-specific. ABET requires reaccreditation every 6 years. CHEA typically reaccredits every 10, but has little impact on curriculum.
“I think you’ll find people make changes at the earlier part of an accreditation cycle,” Phillips says, noting that leaves time to assess and revise before the next accreditation visit.
Students do not necessarily need to scrutinize a school’s curriculum before enrolling, but there are certain questions they should ask. Naturally, the first regards the institution’s accreditation. Those without regional accreditation should be eliminated as options by students who think they may want to pursue higher degrees.
Phillips suggests students next consider the ability of the school to help place graduates in the field. A low placement rate can be a negative sign regarding the school’s reputation or ability to prepare students.
Similarly, internships should be key to biomed technology programs; employers find this experience key in selecting potential candidates for actual hire.
“A college can’t maintain all the equipment you would want to expose a student to—you need that clinical setting,” Christe says. However, classroom instruction is equally important, so any program that does not incorporate these two components may not be as well rounded as one that does.
Students should visit potential schools to view the campus, classroom, laboratories, and equipment, and they should research the faculty, history, and reputation. “How long has the school been in existence? Are they using actual equipment or are they just teaching theory? Does the faculty have experience in the field?” Bowles asks.
Typically, on-campus equipment is donated and older (often 10 years or so) but invaluable for hands-on experience. “It doesn’t have to be the latest and greatest equipment, but it should be in reasonable working order to give students hands-on troubleshooting experience, teach them how to do basic preventive maintenance, and allow them to acquire some basic skill sets they should have before they leave school,” Bowles says.
Of course, for students, often the first concern is cost. Occasionally, easy loans can entice a student to spend more, but this may not be the wisest course of action. “It doesn’t make much sense to spend $40,000 or $50,000 in student loans when you’re going to be making $40,000 or $50,000 a year when you get out. It’s going to be tough to make it,” Bowles says.
Ask, Ask, Ask
Employers are obviously less concerned about cost but should be equally inquisitive about other program aspects and should not take at face value someone saying they have a degree. “Not asking can lead to some real mismatched expectations, and people aren’t always happy,” Christe says. “It’s much easier to make a decision before you hire somebody rather then after.”
Employers can be as confused about accreditation as students, but they do need to understand what accreditation is and should look for candidates from schools associated with respected accrediting bodies, such as CHEA and ABET. They should also ask potential employees about internships they participated in through the school and course specifics. Information covered within a curriculum can indicate the skills and abilities of the candidate and whether they match the job requirements. Often, hands-on repair and maintenance requires more technical skills, while management responsibilities, such as inventory and database management, may require abilities acquired with a 4-year education.
Christe suggests using knowledge of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 99: Standard for Health Care Facilities as a benchmark. “This will tell you a lot about the quality of a program because NFPA 99 is a regulation and a safety code, and students who have never heard of it are probably lacking some pretty vital pieces of information,” Christe says.
Other employers may be happier with a broader expertise, provided the candidate displays the ability to transfer learned skills and information. “What I think the most important thing for employers to consider is, can the student critically think? Can the student solve problems? Can the student communicate and adapt to different situations?” Philips asks.
These are questions more relevant for employers based on the demands Phillips has heard over the past 6 years. “Candidates with a well-rounded education in communications and management-type courses plus technical competencies is, I think, highly considered by employers today,” Phillips says.
Even the best-educated student is likely to require on-the-job training when they first enter the field, but those without proper preparation will require more. For this reason, standardization continues to be a holy grail for the industry, even as it struggles to determine what to standardize.
“I don’t know if standardizing the curriculum itself is an answer as much as standardizing outcomes. There are a wide variety of opinions out there about that,” Bowles says, pointing the discussion back at square one: tackling standardization.
Renee Diiulio is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact .