It's a fact of hospital life that patients demand state-of-the-art treatment and care. Even the smallest hospitals offer a dizzying array of sophisticated medical services to patients, using elaborate computerized equipment to help diagnose illness and injury.
Maintaining the equipment -- computerized tomography (CT) scanners, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems, and other devices that help study body organs -- requires special skills. Not everyone with a socket wrench and knowledge of electronics qualifies as a technician.
Hospitals are required to have their equipment maintained regularly. Medical staff members may often calibrate the equipment and do performance tests, but actual service is left to technicians employed by manufacturers or service companies.
S&W Imaging Systems is one of several companies in the Baltimore area that provides sales and service to hospitals of diagnostic medical imaging equipment, such as X-ray and CT machines.
Bill Moffatt, S&W Imaging Systems vice president and regional manager, said his best service technicians have as much skill in working with hospital staff as they do with a medical imaging system.
"The equipment is usually all serviced at the customer site," Mr. Moffatt said. "The service technician is usually on his own there, meeting the customer at the worst possible time, when the equipment is down.
"The ideal person needs really good technical skills and people skills. They may be with the customer more than our marketing people. They have to know how to deal with people as well as fix equipment," he said.
Most vocational schools and community colleges offer a starting place for people-oriented students with an interest in medical equipment. Here, students can learn basic knowledge of computer systems and electronics. Branches of the military also offer training that can give recruits the background needed to become technicians. Mr. Moffatt said some of S&W's technicians got their training in the military.
With an associate in arts degree, students may qualify to be hired by a company that manufactures or provides medical equipment to hospitals and clinics.
S&W Imaging Systems is one of five regional divisions of National Medial Diagnostics, which is headquartered in Cleveland. National Medical's service corps has about 180 men and women. In looking for new service technician candidates for the Baltimore region, Mr. Moffatt said previous experience is
important, but not always essential. More often, he said, medical equipment companies look for generalists, then give the new employees their own brand of hands-on training.
"When we run ads for people, we want two years of experience servicing medical equipment, generally referred to as medical imaging systems. The ideal candidate would be an electronics engineer," Mr. Moffatt said, someone with a degree who is trained on all types of medical imaging equipment. "But generally they don't last long in service. They get promoted fast and go into sales within three to four years.
"The technicians start with the simplest system and work up, gaining knowledge as they go. They wouldn't necessarily service a CT scanner right away," Mr. Moffatt said.
For an X-ray service technician, Mr. Moffatt said salaries range from $25,000 to $50,000 a year. "That's a big swing, but it really depends on their capabilities," he said.
Not all clinics and hospitals offer patients the most advanced medical equipment and procedures. But nearly all have some specialized equipment that needs maintenance, and hospital size isn't always a good indicator of the sophisticated services available at the facility.
Fallston General Hospital, a 219-bed facility in Harford County, features a mobile MRI system, CT scanner, nuclear medicine lab and other advanced diagnostic equipment.
"We like to think of ourselves as suburban, rather than small," said Kate Albright, marketing director for Fallston General. "People are often surprised," at the extent of the hospital's sophisticated equipment. "We had one of the first nuclear medicine laboratories in the state," she said.
In the nuclear medicine laboratory, cameras, lasers and computers are used to create images of the body for cardiac function and bone studies. In the CT area, radiation is used to obtain slices of information about the body and organs. The mobile MRI also records slices of information, but with magnetics -- no radiation is involved.
Lyle Sheldon, chief operating officer at Fallston General, said the hospital offers specialized equipment because patients expect it. "Whether it's a CT or [other] radiology equipment, even the smallest hospitals need it," he said.
Fallston General has invested about $1 million for the nuclear medicine lab and CT scanner. But that means nothing if the patients are dissatisfied with their treatment.
"Patients who are scheduled for a procedure expect for it to happen when it is scheduled," said Mr. Sheldon.
If a problem occurs on the diagnostic equipment, he said, the
service technicians become the hospital's lifesavers.
"They are protecting more than our investment in the equipment," he said. "They're making sure it is safe to use and patients are satisfied."