Biomedical engineers provide confidence, support to capital equipment customers

By Shaun Eagan DLA Troop Support Public Affairs

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Imagine a customer needs to purchase a multi-million dollar piece of equipment. To do so, they have to use their limited knowledge about the equipment’s full capabilities and specifications. They only know what they need, and have to place the order, with those fine details, in a language that the vendor and contractor making the acquisition can understand. Add on the fact that that lives depend on their ability to order the right equipment and have it installed quickly.

It would be understandable if a customer didn’t have much confidence before making a purchase of this magnitude.

Fortunately, for those looking to purchase capital equipment such as X-ray machines, MRI equipment or CT scan machines, a team of Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support biomedical engineers is ready to help.

As part of the DLA Troop Support Medical supply chain’s Capital Equipment Division, the engineers make sure customers purchase the right equipment, for the right reason, at the right price.

The engineers understand the technical, clinical and contracting language, so they serve as the translators between the customer, vendor and contracting officer. They bring a wealth of knowledge about the capital equipment, and continuously engage with industry to learn about trends, the options and functions of capital equipment, and which equipment best meets customers’ needs. With their expertise and Troop Support Medical’s purchasing power, they help customers, at a moment’s notice, maintain military treatment facilities’ readiness.  

Translating customer needs

Medical’s team doesn’t conduct typical hands-on engineer work.

Starting from the moment a customer reaches out for help to equipment installation, the engineers engage with many different specialties and communicate needs that the customer often doesn’t know how to translate.

“We’re not doing engineering designing or anything like that, but we’re doing a lot of translating for the contracting officer,” Denise Scobee, a Medical biomedical engineer, said.

In addition to the contracting officer, Scobee says the engineers also need to translate requests into languages for the technical panels that come up with equipment standardization, physicists, facilities personnel and clinicians because they all have a role in acquiring the new equipment.

The engineers are also familiar with Medical’s purchasing power, or their ability to leverage better pricing based on quantity and frequency of purchases, and they can discuss specifics with contracting officers and vendors on behalf of the customer.

“A lot of the military treatment facilities, they don’t have the expertise on the equipment and they’re not buying CT scanners every year to get good pricing,” Scobee said. “They may buy one [CT scanner] every six years, where we’re buying them every day. We have those connections with the vendors and we know the options or packages that the customer may want, or we may see something that doesn’t seem right.”

Understanding what the customer wants and directing the customer to the right vendor is the key to a successful transaction. The engineers also identify where the customer isn’t translating their needs appropriately. 

“I had a customer who wanted to buy a full body scanner, but they didn’t know how to word the requirement in order to get that across. The scanner can come either with a standard table that scans most of a body where the patient may need to be rotated, or with a longer table that scans without a rotation,” Scobee said. “I knew this and I talked with the customer and found they wanted the full body scan without having to move the patient, but they weren’t saying that when they were looking to buy a scanner.”

Scobee translated it for the contract solicitation so there was no confusion between the vendor, contracting officer or customer. 

“By saying you just wanted a full body scan, a vendor can say, ‘Okay, well, we can offer a full body scan, but you just have to move the patient,’” Scobee said. “I knew that there was wiggle room, so I told the customer we’d make it part of the specifications and identified that requirement in the beginning, so vendors knew exactly what type of equipment the customer wanted in the first place.”

Keeping up with the Industry

Relying on vendors and attending industry engagements keeps the engineers up-to-date with the latest trends, and allows them to develop important relationships.

“I’ve had two opportunities to go to a radiology convention to learn about new equipment, meet with vendors and see some of our customers face-to-face,” Danielle Gerstman, a Medical biomedical engineer, said. “Seeing and meeting some of the different customers makes the DLA mission feel truly real, and lets us know what is best for the warfighter or help them understand what they actually need.”

Even though the engineers are already experts on capital equipment, hearing from vendors about the direction of the industry or recent breakthroughs is vital to helping customers get the right equipment.

“I do research ahead of time if I have the opportunity to work with a new vendor or new technology that I’ve never seen before,” Gerstman said. “I don’t hesitate to ask an abundance of questions because it’s best to have all the information laid out and have a clear goal for our projects. At the radiology conference, I had a list of different vendors that we were meeting, and sometimes there may be a requirement in mind that I’m interested in learning more about to ensure that we are providing the best options for our customers.”

Even though the conferences are great for the engineers to learn and meet with the vendors, they hope to start seeing more customers attend to strengthen relationships with the industry who can help support their mission.

“My first year going to the conference, I didn’t know much about radiology equipment,” Gerstman said. “Being able to go back more informed and know what I’m talking about and have vendors remember me, I was impressed. Customers should take on more opportunities to get out there and talk with vendors. These connections would make communicating requirements efficient and precise.”

The impact on customer communication

From when the customer reaches out for help to explaining what they want and how they will use the equipment to the engineer following up on the request, acquiring the capital equipment depends on communication.  

Padmabharathi Pothirajan, a Medical biomedical engineer, said the team’s goal is to get orders delivered as soon as possible because they know patients need the equipment.

However, communication delays often slow the process.

“It brings us energy and motivation knowing we’re helping the warfighter,” Pothirajan said. “But we need customers to be as thorough and communicative as possible because we have to check back to make sure the order is everything they need, and make sure that it’s the right equipment and right specifications. Customers can sometimes be unclear with what they want or have information missing for complex projects, which can cause delays until we have the needed information. This is especially difficult with overseas emergency orders, where the time difference can be difficult to coordinate.”

The details are especially more important to emergency orders, but that is because the team takes the emergency orders very seriously.

“If we receive an emergency order on Tuesday morning, we’ll be able to have the order finished by the end of the day, and the contracting specialist can award by the next day,” Pothirajan said. “Once it’s awarded, it’ll go to the vendor and the vendor will be ready to ship. But when we have to wait on a customer to provide information, it slows down the process.”

However, with transparency and high levels of communication, emergency orders can be swift and great for everyone.  

“Last year I received an order from a customer in Afghanistan who needed to receive their equipment in one week and they were really glad because there were a lot of patients waiting on that equipment,” Pothirajan said. “At the time, they were transporting patients from one facility to another because they didn’t have the equipment they needed. But because they were responsive and informative, they got the equipment in time and we saved them a lot of time and allowed the service members to get the care they needed.”

With their unique position and responsibilities at DLA Troop Support Medical, the biomedical engineers provide customers with the confidence they need in making large capital equipment purchases and play an important role in helping military treatment facilities continue providing care to service members.