Hospital heroes: being a biomedical engineer during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the critical role medical technology plays in patient care. As demand for ventilators and patient monitoring equipment has surged, biomedical engineers like alumna Dr Rebecca Bailey are working around the clock to keep patients safe.

Biomedical engineers might just be healthcare’s hidden heroes. Every day, in hospitals around the world, they keep patients safe by managing medical technology, keeping track of inventory and making sure every piece of equipment is working to its best.

In fact, according to La Trobe alumna Dr Rebecca Bailey (Bachelor of Electronic Engineering/Master of Biomedical Engineering, 2006; PhD in Biomedical Engineering, 2018), being a biomedical engineer is a job that, when done well, is unseen.

“One of the great benefits for engineers working in a hospital is, as support staff, you’re a bit invisible, which means you can catch things before they escalate. You can solve problems before they’ve become a problem,” says Rebecca.

“You might be returning equipment to ward, and someone casually says, ‘Oh, this happened the other day’. So, you organise some training for clinical staff, or you manage the repair or replacement of equipment.”

This anticipatory approach to public safety – a precept of all engineering disciplines – has become invaluable for Rebecca and her staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As clinical engineering manager based at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Rebecca oversees a team of clinical and biomedical engineers. Together, they manage the lifecycle of every medical device in the hospital. So when the COVID-19 hit Australia, she and her team were responsible for making sure one of Victoria’s largest hospitals was ready.

Sourcing vital equipment, quickly

When a pandemic like COVID-19 takes hold, biomedical engineers work around the clock to ensure the right systems, equipment and devices are in place. Their expertise becomes a vital link in coordinating supply chains of life-saving medical technology.

“The first few weeks were incredibly busy. We were preparing for the possibility of a massive influx of patients needing access to critical care equipment,” Rebecca says.

For Rebecca and her team, this meant working with a range of areas to rapidly source equipment. Armed with an asset management plan, they collaborated with clinical areas, the hospital’s procurement team and Health Purchasing Victoria to source medical devices. They worked closely with the state government to get access to other centralised medical equipment. And they deliberated over which recently decommissioned equipment could be serviced, tested and brought back in use, if the situation grew dire.

“We had many different types of medical devices arriving at the hospital every day – from beds and thermometers, to patient monitors and intensive care ventilators,” she says.

Thanks to some fortunate timing, Rebecca and her team were able to roll out vital medical devices to hospital wards at incredible speed. Among them was a shipment of large volumetric infusion pumps – a medical device that delivers continuous amounts of fluids to patients, in place of a nurse giving repeated injections. As coronavirus cases climbed in Victoria, the delivery arrived right on time.

“We were lucky because we’d recently purchased a batch of the pumps and they arrived on April 1st, so we had them in addition to our existing fleet. My team worked incredibly hard to verify their performance and deliver them to wards, at a rate of between 500 and 750 devices per week.”

Solving problems, from gas pipelines to manufacturing delays

For months, Rebecca faced constant problem-solving – and thrived.

“As clinical engineers, you always get day-to-day challenges. You never know what’s going to happen next!” she laughs.

To meet the anticipated surge of patients needing ventilators, for example, Rebecca’s team helped figure out the maximum load the hospital’s gas pipeline systems could withstand. Satisfied that enough medical air and oxygen could be delivered, they moved onto the next problem: supplier delays.

“As demand for equipment and spare parts increased, and flights into Australia decreased, the delays from international suppliers became a considerable challenge,” Rebecca says.

“Some service groups and suppliers also changed their policies for working within the hospital, which meant we were completing activities usually done by suppliers. However, the positive side of this was that my team diversified their skills.”

Time and again, solutions were found. Medical equipment manufacturers began focusing their production lines on specific devices, improving throughput. The hospital introduced a three-step program to clean medical equipment as it arrived in Rebecca’s department. And new digital technologies improved everything from maintenance requests to communication between her clinical engineers.

Reflecting on the past few months, Rebecca is grateful for the skills her La Trobe degree gave her. She’s certainly put them to use every day during the pandemic.

“La Trobe taught me to very carefully define what the problem is you’re trying to solve. As engineers, we often need to read between the lines: what someone says they want isn’t necessarily what they actually want. And as biomedical engineers, we have to communicate the exact problem with the clinical team and the risks associated with that, in order to keep patients safe while they’re critically ill,” she says.

“It’s part of making sure every patient has a good care experience: that the equipment they’re connected to works how it should, when it should. We’re always trying to help. Even on the ward, chatting to a patient about the equipment can help them focus on something other than what’s happening to them.”

Championing cross-team collaboration

Of all her team’s achievements during the pandemic, Rebecca is most proud of the cross-disciplinary way they’ve worked. The COVID-19 experience has led to stronger bonds not just within her team, but also with other hospital departments.

“It’s been rewarding to see our clinical engineers rise to every challenge we’ve faced. We have a strong team culture and we’ve enjoyed great support from other teams, both within the hospital and from our external partners,” she says.

This cooperative approach is something Rebecca learnt early in her career. While still an undergraduate student at La Trobe, she landed a casual job with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. The work became ongoing, and through it she began collaborating with a range of different experts: engineers, technicians and scientists.

As her experience during the pandemic has proven, it’s a lesson worth sharing.

“My career advice is to start making professional friendships outside your immediate discipline. From engineering, science and health, to arts, history and finance – we’ve got so much to learn from one another. These relationships will be invaluable as you move through your career – there are few problems that can’t be solved if you share them with a trusted colleague.”

Dr Rebecca Bailey is a biomedical engineer with an advanced skill-set in clinical engineering for medical devices and equipment, including procurement and safety. She's previously enjoyed biomedical engineering and research and development roles at Austin Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Alfred Health and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. A strong advocate of clinical engineering, Rebecca received the Engineers Australia Women in Biomedical Engineering Scholarship in 2014.

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