By Ted Lucidi
It’s been 34 years since I graduated from Penn State’s Biomedical Engineering Technology program. I’ve been fortunate enough to be an instructor within that same program for the last 20 years. One of the challenges within this role is maintaining the curriculum at the speed at which technology is changing. In 2001, we still were teaching component level troubleshooting, even though many technicians would seldom repair to that level. The concept of online resources, such as MedWrench, webinars or even YouTube, were just dreams. I recently read an article that claimed that technology is now doubling every 3.4 years.
Within our curriculum at Penn State, fortunately, we have always focused on fundamentals versus maintaining the most up-to-date, technically impressive equipment which would lure any potential college student’s parents toward our program. Our students learn how bio-electric signals and information is acquired and processed, the procedures to verify that the information is accurate, the methods to assess equipment safety and how to both identify and address common modes of failure. As technology advanced, medical devices became more complex. Devices became more software driven and relied less upon hardware, firmware and proprietary operating systems. PCs became integrated into medical devices and then OEMs developed custom networks which eventually transitioned to the interconnectivity that we have today. The biomedical technician of today not only needs to be a master at electronics, mechanics, pneumatics and hydraulics, but now has to wear two new hats … PC hardware specialist and network analyst. So, how do we get from A to B? How can we remain current and, more importantly, how does the academic world remain current with industry needs? Only having limited time to expose students to hundreds of medical devices, how do we choose on which devices and on what concepts to concentrate efforts?
The engineering technology programs at Penn State are Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited, which can be loosely compared to a continuous quality improvement program. One of the requirements of ABET is to solicit feedback from the industry and former students and to consider modifying course activities and curriculum to meet current needs. Fortunately, Penn State’s BET program has great relationships with surrounding health care systems, device manufacturers and its alumni. Also, over the years, it has formed an Industrial Advisory Committee (IAC). The IAC is comprised of representatives from local health care systems, OEMs, ISOs as well as former students. Twice per year, our faculty meets with the IAC to assess the current state of the program, understand the current and future needs of the industry and to provide feedback on prior suggestions for improving the program. Following is an example of how this unique relationship works. Although our curriculum already includes theory and lab activities surrounding PCs integrated into medical devices, recent suggestions from the IAC included adding additional exposure to PCs, networking and PACS. The following academic year, we integrated additional lab exercises to include PC hardware and software diagnostics, techniques for using common network troubleshooting tools and designing physical and virtual layouts of an ICU and a radiology network. Major changes to any course curriculum at the university level take years to implement, but these minor modifications to the lab activities resulted in a quick response to an imminent pressing need.
Another valuable tool within the PSU BET program is the guest lecturer program. Pulling from our members within the IAC, the goal is to invite one guest lecturer per week to speak on a topic relevant within the HTM field. Popular topics are customer service skills, introductions to specialized medical devices, cybersecurity and employment options within the HTM industry. One of our former students is an OEM service engineer specializing in anesthesia systems. He spends most of one full class-day taking the students through a PM of an anesthesia machine complete with disassembly/reassembly.
For success to occur in either area, industry and academia must have a synergetic relationship … each giving and taking from the other. It’s researchers, either academic or industrial, sharing their expertise, testing methodologies and results with manufacturers and academia relying upon industry to provide feedback into what is needed from the next generation of engineers and technicians.
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