By Ken Hable, MD, BSRT

Imagine you buy a brand new car and you love it. Then, a few years later, it has some issues. That’s when you find out the only place you’re allowed to take it for repairs is the dealership where you bought it.

Worse yet, you also get the unpleasant surprise of learning the company that manufactured the car is insisting you upgrade to the newest model even though the one you have will work fine with minor repairs, and you don’t need a new vehicle.

It sounds a little strange, but that’s what’s happening to some healthcare organizations that invest in expensive medical imaging equipment, only to find out they must jump through hoops to get the information needed to service and maintain that equipment in-house.

Every medical imaging device manufacturer uses service keys, passcodes or an access device like a USB key, which, when provided to equipment owners, allows engineers to access software used for system diagnostics, calibration, and error reporting. Yet, each OEM approaches accessibility to service keys differently. This causes confusion, frustration, and increased costs for healthcare organizations, all of which are unnecessary.

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Ken Hable, MD, BSRT, Technical Prospects

On the more lenient side of the spectrum, you have OEMs that will give out service keys and provide broad access to families of systems and different modalities. This makes it easier for in-house engineers to troubleshoot equipment failures and make repairs after an OEM service contract ends

In the middle, there are OEMs that are a bit stricter. They may have a vetting process or require engineers to get certain training and certification to earn service keys. But once they have the passcodes, the engineers are not limited in terms of access.

Finally, there are the ultra-rigid medical imaging device manufacturers. These OEMs want you to prove you qualify by first paying for their exclusive training to get a service key. When you get one, it will be for a very specific piece of equipment, and access is often limited to certain parts of the software. Plus, the service key has an expiration date. It may expire in one day or one year, whatever the OEM provides. And once expired, you’ll need to request a new one; thus the cycle repeats.

Service Key Access and HTM

Obviously, the OEMs that restrict access to service keys can cause headaches for engineers who are trying to troubleshoot issues with medical imaging systems. Our tech support specialists often run into this roadblock while trying to assist them.

The caller will describe what’s happening, and support will ask what error codes they’re getting. But, the engineer has no service key and, thus, no error codes to report. Unless there’s a very telltale sign of a common issue, there’s not much either of us can do until the key is obtained.

Let’s go back to the new car example from the start of this article.

How frustrated would you be if you had a reliable local mechanic who could fix your vehicle at a better price, but you weren’t allowed to take it to him? Worse yet, what if you had the skills and tools to fix the car yourself, but you weren’t allowed to touch the engine without getting special permission from the car manufacturer?

It’s your car. You paid for it. Shouldn’t you have the right to decide how to service and repair it?

Requiring OEM training is another problem. It’s like saying there’s only one medical school in the nation that can produce licensed doctors. There are many philosophies to practicing medicine, and the details of the educational experience will differ from school to school. I personally attended a nontraditional program, but I still had the ability to go into residency and get licensed. I have the same rights as someone who went to any other medical school.

On top of limiting access to service keys, some OEMs try to push healthcare facilities towards purchasing newer models. But, who’s to say that device has truly reached the end of its life? If it’s still operational, safe and providing value, why shouldn’t an in-house team continue maintaining it?

Service Key Access and OEMs

As you might expect, a lot of it boils down to money. Some OEMs will claim they’re trying to protect proprietary information or the integrity of their brand, but I believe limiting access to medical imaging service software is more likely to hurt the brand.

When a healthcare organization purchases a million-dollar medical imaging device with a three-year OEM service contract, they likely assume in-house engineers can take over service and repairs at the start of year four. But, there are OEMs who don’t want to lose revenue from that service contract. So, their solution is to make it increasingly difficult for anybody but their own people to service and repair the systems.

The problem is, this leaves a horrible taste in the customers’ mouths. If people in the organization know there are more affordable ways to obtain replacement parts or service the equipment, but limited access to service software makes that arduous, they will look elsewhere when it’s time for new medical imaging devices.

The OEM may have high-quality equipment, but if it creates problems and increases downtime due to red tape, it could be viewed as a thorn in the side. The sooner the organization puts out an RFP for new equipment, the sooner that machine is out the door. Other OEMs know this is a pain point in healthcare tech, and their sales reps will use it to gain a competitive edge.

What all OEMs need to realize is that the people who service and support older medical imaging devices are also acting as champions for the OEM’s brands. They’re talking up the quality and helping that equipment extend its usefulness. While this may delay the purchase of new equipment, it helps ensure the OEM that’s already in the facility stays the preferred option.

What’s happening in healthcare tech right now is reminiscent of the way consumers jump between cable and satellite TV providers. As their bills slowly creep up, they switch to a competitor to get a better rate. A year or two later, it happens again. Likewise, healthcare organizations will shift OEM loyalty based on where they feel they’ll get the greatest return on a significant investment.

Isn’t customer satisfaction a better retention strategy? Shouldn’t knowledgeable medical imaging engineers be allowed to do their jobs? Don’t equipment owners have certain rights?

If you believe the answer to all those questions is yes, and you want to do something about it, you may want to connect with the Associations for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI). This nonprofit organization is working to ensure there are fair and transparent policies in place that support healthcare organizations in containing costs and improving patient care.

AAMI is actively involved in the debate surrounding medical imaging service standards as well as the information OEMs are required to provide to healthcare technology management and third-party service organizations. You can stay in the know and make your voice heard by considering an AAMI membership.

Ken Hable is director of engineering and training for Siemens OEM imaging replacement parts, services, and training provider Technical Prospects. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected]