As an associate professor of ultrasound and the chair of the diagnostic ultrasound department at Seattle University in Seattle, Wash., Carolyn Coffin is charged with educating the next generation of sonographers. With 27 years of clinical and educational experience under her belt, Coffin brings a lot to the table, including a patient-centric approach to healthcare that she models for her students throughout the bachelor’s degree program.
“Our whole goal here is to prepare students to be good stewards of patient healthcare and approaching the specialty from a scientific point of view and [as] part of a healthcare team,” Coffin said. “We expose them to the whole gamut of healthcare around the world, so our preparation is very focused on professionalism, patient education, patient care, and lots and lots of clinical practice and expertise.”
The department is “self-contained,” Coffin said, comprising offices, classrooms, and a scanning lab for use by students training for entry-level positions. Her students do not professionally encounter patients until their last year in the program, she said, “and as a result, they’re not exposed to high-end equipment” like the 3D, name-brand imaging systems in many medical centers.
Nonetheless, Coffin said “it is imperative that the students learn the equipment, learn how to use it, learn the bio effect of high-frequency sound, and support the medical use of ultrasound.”
That was a task made far more difficult for the first three years of the program, she said, because the department didn’t have any scanning labs. In those early days, the first time Coffin’s students touched a scanner was at their clinical sites — and the ultrasound department at Seattle University is “a little bit different than what clinical sites would use,” she said.
“We basically get the students familiar with the basics of ultrasound,” Coffin said. “Upgrading is a little bit expensive; we just wait until there’s a chance to buy something that’s a little more current than the generation we have.”
As a result, Coffin said, the department is “always about two generations behind.”
“We don’t really have a budget for a big piece of equipment,” she said. “We usually have a small lab budget that’s enough to cover most repairs, as long as they’re within a couple thousand dollars, and it’s enough to buy a rebuilt transducer, but nothing new.”
Bigger universities are usually connected with a medical center that commands — and often purchases — “state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line technology,” Coffin said. In contrast, she said, Seattle University, which prepares its students for entry-level technologist work, is more focused on getting technologists some hands-on equipment experience.
“If all we had to deal with were Siemens or GE or Philips or Toshiba, we couldn’t afford anything,” Coffin said, because “budgets are tight for higher education.”
“The tighter they get, the more creative we get,” she said, “and the more we rely on relationships like the one we have with Summit Imaging.”
The Woodinville, Wash.-based ultrasound service company has been an important piece of the necessary clinical education the students in her program receive.
“We couldn’t exist without an affordable, customer-friendly company that could work with us on our specific needs,” she said. “We use Summit exclusively for any of our repairs, and usually for transducer purchases. We’ve formed a nice friendship and a good relationship.”
With six scanning bays in the clinical area, Coffin said her department always has equipment needs. But without the money to purchase new equipment, or to update or repair existing gear, keeping current is a challenge. Furthermore, when classes are not in session — a good six months of the year — the units “often don’t work when we fire them up,” she said. Summit Imaging has been “really helpful about finding things in his inventory that are affordable for us,” Coffin said.
“They know what our needs are; they know what our budget is,” she said.
Another important piece of their relationship, Coffin said, is that Summit Imaging technicians offer brand-agnostic support, which has been a point of contention with other vendors. As she related, even a donated piece of equipment can be difficult to put to use under certain circumstances — such as when the nearby University of Washington upgraded the equipment in its ultrasound department and donated one of its old Philips HDI 5000 units to her program. The manufacturer wouldn’t take it in for service, Coffin said, because Seattle University wasn’t its original owner.
“They went through these hoops to see what’s the serial number,” she said. “We said, ‘It’s been donated, and we need it repaired.’ ”
Instead, she said, the staff at Summit offers a “non-equipment-specific service” that allows her the flexibility to support the program and its aims.
“Having a non-OEM relationship is really important when it comes to purchasing rebuilt transducers because I think we get a better deal,” Coffin said. “We have a more personal relationship. Other reps from the OEMs … send me a quote that’s usually double what I have [to spend].”
Coffin knows, too, that downtime in her department isn’t as critical as it is in a clinical setting with patient care, but she said that the proximity of Summit to her campus means that technicians are often over to support the equipment in her lab either within the same day or soon thereafter. It’s a difference-maker when students are relying on the equipment to function properly in order to complete a project.
“The presence of somebody like Summit in our world is valuable in that we have access to a variety of used equipment through a company that supports it,” Coffin said.
“The big companies miss the boat with schools: the students are their next customers,” she said. “Summit is just making sure we have the experience we need, the equipment we need, at the level we need it.”