Before classes began in the fall of 1991, Arif Subhan, MS, CCE, FACCE, now the chief biomedical engineer at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, Omaha, visited the office of the coordinator of clinical engineering at Drexel University, Philadelphia. As a graduate student, he was enrolled in medical instrumentation—biomed “101,” according to Subhan. The professor was Vernon Newhouse, a monumental figure in the field of biomedical engineering. Subhan was as indistinguishable as many other students who had entered Newhouse’s office in the past. His anonymity would last for a very short time.
Subhan asked Newhouse what book he was planning to use for the course. Upon hearing the book’s title, Subhan said, “Oh, I already have that one.” According to Subhan, Newhouse was one part surprised and one part impressed and said, “You seem to be very enthusiastic about this subject.” Since then, Subhan has made a pattern of distinguishing himself from his peers. Most recently, he did so at the bequest of his peers: The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) awarded him with the 2012 AAMI Clinical/Biomedical Engineering Achievement Award.
Subhan was born and raised in a hospital. He wasn’t sick—both of his parents were physicians in Pakistan. His two brothers also become physicians. After developing a talent for math, someone in his family suggested Subhan study engineering instead. He did, however, connect his engineering major to his family’s medical background while working on his senior project, after his adviser suggested that Subhan work on a biomed-related project.
After graduation, Subhan pursued a postgraduate diploma in biomedical engineering in England before returning to Pakistan to work as a biomedical engineer. Two years later, Subhan decided to attend Drexel for a master’s degree in the field. Following graduation, Subhan joined Masterplan, now part of Aramark, Charlotte, NC, for what turned out to be a 16-year tenure.
“It was fun to grow with the company and do different things along the way,” he says. Subhan stayed busy and, among other things, he consulted with local hospitals, performed quality assurance, developed policies and procedures, and clarified codes and standards for hundreds of hospitals in 30 states. Frank R. Painter, MS, CCE, who has known Subhan for more than a decade and is now a consultant in the profession, says that Subhan was the “go-to person for hundreds of people in the field.”
Having both technical expertise and a knack for clearly communicating complex information, Subhan was frequently tapped to work on conceptual projects. “Arif was one of the ‘Gang of a few’—an intellectual expert at the office,” says Malcolm Ridgway, PhD, CCE, the founder of Masterplan, and, at that time, senior vice president for technology management. “We had a lot of guidelines, books, trainings. We had a core group at the corporate office who specialized in doing data analysis and analyzing regulations. Arif was a part of that group. He helped analyze regulations for about 400 accounts.”
Like many fields, working in biomedical engineering is like running on a treadmill. “As the technology changes, the knowledge of the staff needs to keep up,” Subhan says. “Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘OK, if I want to educate myself, I have to spend a little money and time, and down the road it will help me in my career.’ ”
Subhan could have coasted. “Arif came with a master’s degree and quite a good set of credentials already when he came on board,” Ridgway says. “But he was certainly one for continually trying to polish his shield. His office was full of things hanging on the wall. There is a certain layer of people in the business who are self-improvers. Usually, this is manifested in opting to become certified.” Which is exactly what Subhan did.
“I think that one of my achievements or turning points was getting my CCE (certified clinical engineer) in 2005,” Subhan says. However, Subhan, a continual self-improver, did not stop at becoming certified. “When I got that certification, there was no CCE review course. I worked with other people to develop a review course for prospective clinical engineers who want to pursue certification. That gave me an excellent opportunity to teach and learn more about the field.”
As that project indicates, Subhan takes an interest in not just advancing his own career, but also advancing the careers of others. “Getting involved with professional activities is actually something I started doing when I was in Pakistan,” he says. “I’ve always had an interest in being involved, presenting papers, having that camaraderie, talking about what my issues are, and realizing that with whatever you’re dealing with, there are other people dealing with the same problem, and they might have good solutions.”
In addition, Subhan serves as the chairman of the US Certification Commission, has been a consultant, teaches in the biomedical engineering program at the University of Connecticut, and sits on the editorial board of 24×7, where he helps project what the most important issues in the field will be. Painter, who leads the University of Connecticut program Subhan lectures in and who won the 2011 AAMI Clinical/Biomedical Engineering Achievement Award, nominated Subhan for the 2012 award and says that Subhan’s enthusiasm for the field makes him a popular and influential teacher. According to Painter, Subhan has a strong interest in helping people who are considering the profession and knows several clinical engineers who attribute Subhan with helping them into the field.
Leader in the Field
Each year since 1983, AAMI has awarded the AAMI Clinical/Biomedical Engineering Achievement Award to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding service and accomplishment with a significant impact in the field. In 2012, Subhan became the award’s 25th recipient. “I felt honored that my peers selected me,” Subhan says. “It makes me humbled looking at the people in the past who’ve won. I don’t know if I’m lucky, but I got the opportunity not just to know, but to work with and be a student of the people who built this profession.”
Ridgway, who won the award in 2001 and conominated Subhan, says, “I think the award culminated a lot of work that he’s done. He works tirelessly on the training programs and certification programs. We like to acknowledge people who put in that extra effort.”
Back to Basics
Three years ago, Subhan received a call from the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Healthcare System (VANWIHCS). The job offer differed greatly from the position he currently held at the time. In his new role as the chief biomedical engineer of biomedical engineering services at the VANWIHCS, Subhan would go from working on industrywide issues to focusing his attention on one health care system. “The universe he was living in got a little smaller, but he was able to be much more hands-on with the technology and the people,” Painter says.
Where some might have seen a step backward, Subhan saw a new opportunity, rich with potential. “I thought it was a good time to move back to the trenches,” he says. “I’m not that old, but the nature of the profession is such that the tech is growing so rapidly. I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back and see what’s happening in the clinical environment and at the bedside, and be the hands-on person rather than being the desk person.’ ”
He says he has found a new perspective in his current position. He has worked to implement new technology, and he has found the experience of working with teaching hospitals, which most VA hospitals are, to be positive. He says his time working as an independent service provider allowed him to see many different hospitals and ways of doing things, while working at the VA has allowed him to feel like he is part of a team: To him, neither is better than the other. Doing each informs what he does professionally.
It is unlikely that Subhan will rest on his AAMI-appointed laurels. Reading through the list of accomplishments that led to his winning the AAMI award, it would be reasonable to think that Subhan is somehow an outlier, that what he has accomplished would be hard to reproduce. Put that idea to Subhan, however, and he would have a different story: “The opportunities are there,” he says. “It’s just a matter of pursuing them.”
Kurt Woock is the associate editor of 24×7. Contact him at .