By Kevin Brinkman
System downtime. Those are two of the most frustrating and fearsome words in any medical imaging department. It means patients who need diagnoses aren’t being served and the healthcare facility is likely taking a financial hit.
The partners you choose to support your organization in servicing, maintaining and repairing medical imaging systems play a crucial role in ensuring reliability and reducing the chance that a scanner will sit idle, waiting for a field service engineer or a replacement part to arrive.
A CT system or MRI that goes down for just 24 hours will easily cost a clinic tens of thousands in lost revenue. Plus, that patient may go to the clinic on the other side of town to get the imaging services and any follow-ups from a competitor.
Finding the right service provider
Whether you have imaging engineers employed in-house, work with engineers from an independent service organization (ISO) or are under contract to use the OEM’s engineers, you need to be able to trust and rely on the people who keep your systems running.
That seems obvious, yet some healthcare technology management (HTM) leaders hesitate to invest in training for in-house employees. Or those in procurement may look for the lowest-priced third-party option without considering other factors, such as the added value a partner brings to the table.
Others assume they can trust the OEM to provide the highest quality service and parts. In some cases, that may be absolutely true, but how do you know if the manufacturer or service provider is being transparent?
New or used?
A former colleague who once worked as a field service engineer for an imaging equipment manufacturer told some interesting stories about his experience. One thing he mentioned was how the OEM would blur the lines between what was a new replacement part and what was pre-owned and refurbished.
You deserve to know the details about replacement parts in your imaging systems and understand exactly what you’re paying to have installed.
The OEM business model
While you should trust the engineers your OEM provides to work on imaging systems that are under a service contract, you may also want to consider the manufacturer’s broader motivation. In general, manufacturers are focused on developing and selling new technology to HTMs.
That’s why you may be discouraged from keeping a system in place as it nears end of life (EOL), even though it could continue to serve a purpose in your department for years to come. The OEM’s focus on innovation and upselling can mean more resources are used on research and development and less go toward hiring expert imaging engineers to work in the field. In turn, that could mean you’re waiting an extra day for the engineer to arrive and provide service because he or she is at a site on the other side of the state.
There are many knowledgeable and reliable third-party service providers who can send proficient imaging engineers to a healthcare facility on short notice.
It is, however, important to understand that there are a wide range of ISOs in operation. Some are large groups and others are individuals available for hire. There are even organizations that can staff your clinic with permanent, outsourced support. Some ISOs have their own supply of replacement parts. Others order from parts providers, perhaps seeking the best price. It’s possible that an ISO could order replacement parts from the OEM at full-price, only to charge you an additional markup.
Again, working with partners who provide both reliability and transparency cannot be understated. And, OEM engineers are certainly not the only ones capable of servicing imaging equipment. In many cases hospitals are even training biomedical engineers to fulfill basic service requirements, such as routine preventive maintenance procedures.
Finding the right parts provider
An expert imaging engineer can’t complete the job if the replacement parts he or she orders fail to work properly. That’s why every engineer and ISO needs a dependable parts supply chain.
A common misconception is that parts from the OEM are always brand new and parts from a third-party provider are always used. In fact, new parts are often available from parts providers, including new X-ray tubes.
It’s worth asking service organizations and field service engineers where they source their medical imaging parts from, especially if you already have an idea of who you can trust to provide quality, a fair price, timeliness and support. There are several factors you can use to evaluate parts providers.
Dead-on-arrival (DOA) rates
An easy way to get an idea of the quality you can expect with parts from a third-party is to get their DOA rate. This metric is a measurement of replacement parts that are sent back to the provider because they don’t work once installed.
Look for a DOA rate that is well below five percent. You can even find medical imaging parts providers with a lower DOA rate than the OEM. That may seem surprising, but another thing my former colleague explained was that sometimes OEM field service engineers return parts from a job that weren’t needed or didn’t work, and details fall through the gaps. Instead of testing the parts that get returned to the manufacturer, they go right back into inventory only to cause problems the next time they show up at a site.
Quality assurance (QA) testing
There’s no reason to put up with a company that struggles to send you medical imaging components that actually work. A parts supplier should be testing every part it harvests from pre-owned imaging systems and every part that’s returned before it goes back on the warehouse shelf.
Plugging parts into a piece of imaging equipment and ensuring they will function as expected is the only way to provide true quality assurance. A bit of research into how your parts provider conducts QA will tell you a lot about their commitment to quality parts and customer service.
There may be times when an engineer receives a replacement part that doesn’t appear to work. Despite best intentions, there’s always the possibility that something was overlooked during installation. The part may be fine, but the engineer needs some technical assistance.
A parts supplier that also offers technical support to imaging engineers in the field can help troubleshoot roadblocks and brainstorm solutions to the problem. If a solution is found, it helps the parts provider keep its DOA rate low, but it also allows the customer to avoid the hassle of returning a part and waiting for another replacement to arrive. That means reduced downtime.
Keep in mind that the level of free technical support you’re getting from the OEM will depend on the terms of your service contract, and could come with an additional cost.
Medical imaging partners: Certifications and regulations
There’s been a lot of discussion in the medical imaging community lately regarding potential regulations and new standards. A 2018 FDA report found that third-party parts and service providers offer necessary support to the U.S. healthcare system. The FDA also noted that it found no reason for any public health concerns surrounding the servicing of imaging equipment.
At that time, the FDA indicated it wouldn’t impose any regulations. Still, there are ongoing efforts to standardize servicing practices, including recent deliberations surrounding the differences between servicing and remanufacturing imaging equipment.
The latest set of recommended servicing guidelines, which came from the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance (MITA), are based on ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 standards, the latter of which relates specifically to medical devices. For now, healthcare providers should look for partners who already meet these standards and gain confidence in the quality that can be expected.
The main concern of the healthcare community is serving patients safely and effectively. Choosing the right parts and service providers for your install base of imaging equipment definitely makes a difference. They should be viewed as a vital extension of your team.
About the author: Kevin Brinkman is the senior director of engineering for Technical Prospects, a provider of parts, training and support for imaging equipment.