Staffing shortages have become a harsh reality in health care. Shortages and increased turnover in patient-facing roles, such as nursing, have perhaps been the most well-publicized. However, this crisis extends to many crucial disciplines, including clinical engineering.
A multitude of factors have made it more difficult to recruit and retain clinical engineering technicians. Like many healthcare professionals, technicians are dealing with unprecedented burnout. Two years of the ongoing pandemic have increased stress that comes with any type of work in a healthcare setting. Rigorous infection protocols, high patient volumes, and the risk of exposure all complicate the responsibility of maintaining medical devices.
While it is impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic, other stressors for clinical engineering technicians have long been ingrained in their day-to-day responsibilities. When workflows are not managed efficiently, administrative tasks often take up to 30% of technicians’ time. This creates greater restraints on their ability to carry out the maintenance and repairs health systems depend on.
Beyond the challenges in the workplace, the talent pipeline itself creates additional problems. Health systems are facing a potential crisis in the form of an aging workforce of clinical engineering technicians. 47% of technicians are over the age of 50, and 22% are nearing retirement. These impending retirements, along with general demand, will create a need for 5,000 new technicians in the next three years. Unfortunately, less than 400 new technicians are graduating and entering the workforce each year. Compiled with professionals leaving health care altogether because of burnout and pandemic-related factors, the gap that health systems must close is daunting.
All the turnover and the limited supply of new talent means higher demand amongst employers. Amidst the increased competition to attract clinical engineering technicians, health systems are also dealing with shortages in patient-facing roles such as nursing. Filling either type of role becomes even more challenging for health systems when dealing with such high pressure to find top talent in both clinical and technical areas.
Without the right approach to maintain a full, productive clinical engineering staff, medical device maintenance capabilities can quickly fall behind a health system’s needs. But a proactive, comprehensive strategy can address many of these issues, both at the individual health system- and industry-wide level.1. Building a culture that demonstrates and appreciates the value of clinical engineering contributions
Clinical engineering can often be an overlooked function within a health system, despite its critical impact. An unintentional consequence can be that clinical engineering technicians feel isolated or unnoticed within their facility or organization. By recognizing your clinical engineering teams as a critical impact to medical devices and involving them in important discussions and decision-making processes that impact medical device inventories, you can help safeguard your clinical engineering department. Of course, competitive compensation is always one way to keep or lure new talent, however, like any contributor, technicians want to make sure their voices and expertise are heard and taken seriously. Greater involvement with and exposure to other aspects of the health system can also show clinical engineering the full impact of their work, all the way to care pathways and patient outcomes. Simply inquiring with the clinical engineering teams about their working conditions can provide the information needed to make your health system an appealing workplace and current staff feel heard. By building a reliable channel for collecting feedback, you can capitalize on your staff’s best ideas to help your health system grow and change for the better.
Of course, a culture of value and appreciation is essential to this strategy as well. Young professionals are, more than ever, seeking a sense of community and belonging in all aspects of life—career included. To foster future generations of technicians, health systems must consider the evolving priorities that define job satisfaction.2. Taking action to expand the clinical engineering talent pipeline
Curbing the clinical engineering shortage means creating a better foundation for training new technicians. A major contributing factor to the shortage of new entrants to the field is simply a lack of awareness that it exists as an option. Hospitals, health systems, and industry groups need to take an active role in generating interest in the field among young people.
This means accessing educational environments including colleges, universities, trade & technical schools, and even high schools to share information about career options. Clinical engineering technicians do not necessarily require traditional four-year degrees to gain the necessary skills to perform the job. This opens a large pool of potential candidates from diverse educational paths to be trained for this essential role.
Paths beyond colleges and universities also hold untapped potential for increasing the clinical engineering talent pool. For example, many servicemen and women transitioning out of military life have a technical background that translates well to learning the skills of clinical engineering. Some may even have already gained relevant on-the-job experience during their service. Industry groups, such as the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) are also taking an active role to drive recruitment with clinical engineering apprenticeship programs. AAMI partners directly with employers to train apprentices, yet these health systems also benefit from a new, direct pipeline for new talent.3. Offering strong career growth opportunities
Clinical engineering must attract lifelong learners. After all, medical device technology is constantly advancing, and technicians need to adapt and grow to perform their duties. Health systems need to actively reward this passion with opportunities to expand knowledge and skills. Technicians should have access to mentorship from experienced professionals. These programs can help strengthen job skills for younger associates and establish a better sense of available career paths.
Of course, clinical engineering technicians, like any driven employee, want their employer to be a hands-on advocate for exploring and pursuing career paths. This means training that can help them keep up with the latest medical device technology, including cyber technology and security, which is an ever-growing focus for clinical engineering. It also means strengthening capabilities in day-to-day responsibilities with programs and learning tracks that prepare technicians to move into leadership positions. Even cross-training to shift into other disciplines, like imaging technologist roles, is crucial to keeping staff engaged and fulfilled. These types of opportunities allow technicians to pursue a wide range of interests. Yet the health system also benefits from the work, expertise, and passion that these educational programs help to develop, even in the case of a lateral career move.
Programs like these demand a wealth of expertise and informational resources. This can be difficult for health systems to establish alone, especially amidst widespread staffing shortages. Enlisting an independent service organization (ISO) dedicated to clinical engineering services is one way to make these resources more achievable. Such a partnership can expand the industry experience that a health system can tap into, to the benefit of both clinical operations and development opportunities for technicians.
More formalized educational opportunities like advanced degrees or certification programs also help professionals make their long-term career goals a reality. Three essential requirements for pursuing these goals are information, time, and financing; and employers can help clinical engineering technicians to attain all these resources. Information on relevant programs and available opportunities should always be made available to associates. Health systems should carefully consider whether their in-house departments can offer the balanced scheduling and work-life balance that employees need to focus on continuing education.4. Empowering clinical engineering technicians with the right technology and partnerships
No matter how vigorously you pursue fully staffing your clinical engineering service, many systemic and industry-wide challenges can still impact these teams. So, what do clinical engineering technicians need to thrive even in challenging times? The key is not just how you recruit and interact with staff; the software and platforms that they have to manage and perform their work are also essential. As mentioned earlier, time spent on administrative tasks is a major contributor to burnout. Moreover, it takes focus away from the fulfilling work of maintaining devices that make a real difference in patient care. Software tools create opportunities to automate and streamline much of this work.
When vetting platforms such as a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), carefully evaluate how they may simplify or complicate technicians’ work. Do work orders require many manual actions to be submitted, advanced through the maintenance process, and completed? Or can work orders reflect real-time monitoring of your network-connected device inventory?
Also, consider how processes can be streamlined by software tools. For example, ordering parts can be a time-consuming responsibility, and navigating unpredictable supply chains can delay crucial work, compounding on-the-job stress. Instead of relying on manual ordering or even a single-point solution, examine ways to integrate responsive supply chain management with a work order management system.
One of the most impactful strategies for aligning technology with processes is partnering with a technology vendor that also provides hands-on services to support clinical engineering functions. An ISO can offer many of the resources that health systems need to build efficiencies as well as increase the workplace appeal for clinical engineering technicians. Many of these tactics for recruitment and retention can require substantial investments of time, energy, and funding. Given the many pressures that health systems already face, these can be incredibly difficult to achieve alone. However, an ISO that is focused on clinical engineering excellence can efficiently scale these activities and increase the benefits to both technicians and the health system at large.
It is impossible to remove all uncertainty and pressure from health care. However, the right software tools can increase clinical engineering technicians’ agency to reduce bottlenecks and risks so they can focus more of their energy on the work that matters most.
Each of these methods can uniquely impact job satisfaction for current clinical engineering technicians and the appeal for prospective candidates. Yet it is important to remember that the challenges facing health systems impact the current workforce, new job market entrants, and even potential future technicians in a variety of ways. Therefore, no single course of action will entirely solve staffing shortages and turnover. Instead, it is essential to implement a comprehensive strategy to boost job satisfaction and recruitment.
The absolute truth is that clinical engineering staffing will become more tumultuous throughout the industry. To adapt and thrive, health system leaders must:
- Demonstrate the value of clinical engineering both through communication and total rewards
- Foster future talent and offer avenues for growth and success
- Adopt the tools that empower efficient work
Clinical engineering technicians make an incredible difference in how health systems deliver patient care. Employers who understand and acknowledge this impact will be poised for greater success in the face of a rapidly shifting healthcare industry.
Kristi McDermott serves as president of clinical engineering for TRIMEDX, leading the growth in commercial operations as well as the service in our clinical engineering field operations. Kristi has been in the healthcare industry for over 25 years, and in the healthcare technologies space for almost 10 years. Previously, Kristi served as vice president of growth and vice president of field operations for Aramark Healthcare Technologies.
She has served in numerous operations roles, including account manager and district manager, before becoming vice president of compliance for the Aramark Healthcare division, driving compliance initiatives across the corporation.
Kristi earned a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, food, and nutrition from Iowa State University and an MBA from Maryville University. Kristi lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Gerry.