NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. – Alumni of Penn State Kew Kensington’s biomedical engineering technology (BET) program are helping keep vital healthcare equipment working and hospitals running across Pennsylvania and the nation.
These healthcare professionals are working behind the scenes to ensure that the lifesaving medical equipment at their hospitals remains in working order and ready for use. Although the field isn’t widely known by the general public, the coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on the need for increased numbers of functional, well-maintained ventilators and other pieces of critical equipment – as well as the professionals who keep them running.
“Hospitals would not be able to function without us, and it is rewarding work,” said Cory Norton, a biomedical engineering technologist at Indiana Regional Medical Center in Indiana, PA. “I work with my hands and solve problems that keep a hospital running smoothly.”
A relatively unknown field
Norton, a 2017 alumnus of the Penn State New Kensington BET program, is one of many medical equipment technicians, known by some as “biomeds,” across the U.S. working in a field he describes as often unknown outside of healthcare settings. The New Kensington BET program is one of only seven accredited programs in the nation, which has seen a 100 percent job placement success rate over recent years – a demonstration of the need for this important skillset.
“In terms of the general public, I'd want them to know that there's a reason why medical equipment functions properly and is safe to be used on patients,” said Nathan French, a 2016 BET program graduate and current clinical engineering generalist at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation noted this year that healthcare technology management professionals are a “critical knowledge base for equipment planning, purchase, installation, maintenance, troubleshooting and on-call technical support.” And with more than 6,000 hospitals in the United States, according to the American Hospital Association, biomeds can be found diligently working, and often on small teams, to keep their hospital operational.
"Biomedical equipment technicians are part of the patient care team," said Mike Shtur, BET program alumnus and field service engineer for GE Healthcare. "The landscape changes with or without a pandemic, so a biomed is a constant student. The work is exciting if you keep improving yourself and stepping outside your comfort zone."
Norton is one of three biomeds at his hospital, while French serves as the sole technician “responsible for maintaining, testing and repairing all medical equipment belonging to the respiratory department, pulmonology department, pulmonary exercise lab and helicopter transport team.”
In Boise, ID, 2019 BET program alumnus and retired U.S. Air Force airman, Justin Pooley, is one of eight biomeds in a 350-bed adult and children’s hospital in the St. Luke’s Health System.
“I think most people don’t know we exist, but when I tell people what I do, I get a similar reaction to telling people I was in the military: a thank you for what you do,” said Pooley.
Essential work during COVID-19
Joie Marhefka, program coordinator and assistant teaching professor of New Kensington’s BET program, stressed that biomeds, including many from the campus’ program, have been doing important work prior to and now during the pandemic.
“All healthcare workers are doing such important work during this pandemic, and this includes biomeds,” said Marhefka. “We have a great group of alumni who are doing important work all of the time and COVID-19 is really bringing healthcare to the forefront. The work that our alumni – and all biomeds – are doing during this time is essential to keep hospitals running and should not be overlooked.”
The pandemic has globally changed the lives and work environments for everyone, including the biomeds working within hospitals preparing for and treating COVID-19 patients.
“I enter the building through the one point of entry and walk past the thermal scanner to determine if I have a fever,” explained Pooley of new protocols at his hospital. “I get scrubs on, which wasn’t the norm before, but the shop has this measure to limit the chance of taking COVID home.”
In addition to the scans and additional sanitizing protocols, Pooley works extended shifts for three days in a row to limit the number of biomeds in his shop and help mitigate any potential cross-contamination.
Norton’s schedule has also been adjusted to adhere to physical distancing recommendations and has been working his hospital’s night shift hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
French has been assisting another technician at his hospital preparing spare ventilators for the facility’s disaster preparedness plan, on top of his regular equipment maintenance, testing and repair responsibilities.
Even though COVID-19 has changed some policies and procedures faced by the biomeds, they all agree that they feel gratified to continue to perform integral work that aids the lifesaving techniques used by doctors and healthcare providers and their industry.
“I have always felt proud of the work that I do on this equipment,” said French. “I have been in the field for four years now, and I still learn something interesting almost every day. Obviously, there is a spotlight currently being shined on biomeds and especially ventilators during this outbreak. The new recognition is good for me, other biomeds and the biomed industry as a whole.”
“You get to peek behind a curtain that normal people may never see, and it’s a very rewarding and reliable field to work,” concluded Norton. “It is nerve wracking, but I feel fortunate to have made the decision to study at Penn State and work in the medical field.”
“We Are” stories
The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment.