By George Hampton & David Francoeur
Every year, hospitals add more and more medical technology. Unfortunately, the number of individuals with the specialized skills to maintain and repair those devices is going in the opposite direction.
Currently, industry estimates indicate about 54,000 biomeds are working in healthcare systems from coast to coast. In the next five years, we project a significant portion of that workforce to retire, a pace that isn’t being mirrored in the number of people coming into our profession. Today, about 50% of biomeds in our field are over the age of 50.
In contrast, we expect new biomed jobs to grow by at least 5% a year for the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There simply aren’t enough future biomeds currently in the pipeline to meet that need.
What’s at stake for hospitals is the risk of scaling back patient care when mission-critical equipment is out of service, which, in turn, translates into lost revenue when margins already are tight. How do you know when you are at risk? The early signs that your HTM team is understaffed include slower response times and longer downtimes. Simply put, if you don’t have the equipment available for necessary treatments, then you’re going to have to cancel patient appointments – which creates a high-risk situation for health systems.
Knowledge Lost when Biomeds Retire
Within our industry, this watershed moment could redefine how we support our hospitals. One of the biggest obstacles with a dwindling workforce is that talented veteran biomeds will take important knowledge with them when they retire. When we were managing in-hospital teams, we often planned our staffing to have a few practiced veterans in every shop, something we still encourage our regional directors to strive for. Losing those accomplished experts will reduce the opportunities for side-by-side training and mentoring.
Many hospitals already are seeing staffs stretched to extremes, which means the highest-skilled biomeds take more sophisticated calls while newer biomeds are assigned to develop their skills on a simpler piece of equipment. There’s no give-and-take where industry masters offer novice biomeds real-world lessons, which you can’t replicate even in the best training classes.
When a human capital shortage is projected in nursing or other healthcare professions, you read it in the headlines, and healthcare systems and educational partners pivot to recruit and prepare new talents to close those gaps. Outside of that spotlight, our biomeds are professionals working on the front lines as well, and we ensure that providers have access to the increasingly critical numbers of medical devices used in treating patients.
Today, hospitals average up to 24 medical devices per bed, which means a 500-bed hospital could have some 12,000 devices to service and maintain inpatient rooms alone. That’s not counting critical equipment in imaging and surgical suites, laboratories and other treatment areas.
About the Discipline
New medical equipment is becoming more sophisticated, which could lure new types of talent into the field. We’re seeing opportunities for a new generation of biomeds with natural affinities for networked and software-driven equipment, particularly with growing concerns about cybersecurity risks with HTM.
In our early careers, when both of us worked in hospitals, we were able to take apart and tinker with more equipment as we discovered what was wrong as we repaired devices. As you see in the automobile industry, today’s HTM requires more training and insight on digital advancements, and some equipment can even self-diagnose why it’s not working and guide biomeds to the right fixes.
Even before COVID-19, many colleges were eliminating programs in biomedical equipment technology, which has further tightened the emerging pool of new biomeds. Dating from the 1970s, those programs focused heavily on electronics, anatomy and physiology, leading to associate degrees. One hurdle we’re working to overcome is that many people mistakenly believe that an engineering degree is required to secure a biomed job.
Today, only 22 colleges – up from a high of 55 schools – are graduating 400 new biomeds every year.
We still believe it’s a fascinating job, as you are surrounded by amazing people and share in the mission of quality healthcare. Today’s training now allows those interested in related fields such as software and robotics to find a niche in HTM, while also appealing to more diverse candidates. For example, we see more female biomeds today as the highly specialized Women’s Services segment allows them to move seamlessly and gracefully in and out of that environment.
On a practical level, we see an important need for individuals who are strong oral and written communicators. At the heart of the biomed profession is ensuring equipment is ready and available for patient care. As nurses and other providers are inundated by the growing volume of devices needed for effective patient care, they simply can’t keep up with the knowledge and skills to use each piece of equipment effectively. Too often, the HTM team retrieves a device that is reportedly not working, but the real issue is a lack of understanding of its functionality. At TKA in particular, we prepare our biomeds to train front-line providers on those devices.
Because that is just one way that the skills set of an effective biomed has evolved, TKA prepares our team with targeted people management and other soft-skills training, including budget development. We layer this on top of ongoing job training that ensures our biomeds are technically competent. We believe this approach differentiates us from our competitors.
This issue isn’t something that any of us can tackle alone. One recent big step came late last summer, when the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, our trade organization, unveiled the Certified Associate in Biomedical Technology program to provide a springboard for launching or changing career tracks.
The main mechanism for healthcare delivery, in this day and age, is equipment and the technology behind it. You need your medical devices to be ready, working and clean when needed by providers and patients. Think about your laptop: When it works well, you don’t think much about it; when it doesn’t, then it becomes very apparent that you need help. Our industry – more importantly, our people – are vital to the health of the healthcare industry. We are the ambassadors for one of the largest underpinnings of patient care.
Our TKA team continues to speak with industry peers and hospital partners about the pending workforce shortage. Another strategy we’re deploying to generate interest is offering internships to recent high school graduates or career changers, as a way to experience the profession. We’re also in discussions with one college to develop a custom training program specifically to prepare future TKA biomeds, to augment the training and educational support we currently offer all of our biomeds. As we work collaboratively to address this industry-wide concern, please share your ideas and successes in promoting this worthwhile.
George Hampton is President and David Francoeur is Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing at TKA.
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