Brett Barker’s professional experience as an engineer includes the demolition of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, but it was the health care-related training that he and other soldiers received that became the key influence toward his choice of biomedical engineering as a career.
“Military combat engineering is totally different from what you do in civilian engineering,” he said. “It was the medical training that I received prior to deploying, ‘Combat Lifesaver (Course),’ that drew me toward a career in the medical field.”
Barker is currently entering his senior year at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton, Mich., following a 12-week internship at the VA National Center for Patient Safety, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“I started going to Michigan Tech before joining the Army,” Barker said, “knowing that I would go back using the GI Bill, and then decide what type of engineering I wanted to get into.”
After first being stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, Barker was deployed to Iraq, from 2006 to 2007, and returned to school as an Army reservist. He was recalled for a tour in Afghanistan in 2010. Now, he’s finishing his bachelor’s degree.
Barker came to NCPS during the summer of 2013 as a biomedical engineering intern.
“Between junior and senior year, a lot of people look for internships,” Barker said. “I knew the VA would be a good fit for me, being a Veteran. I understand a lot of the issues, and knew I could bring a different perspective than many other applicants for the internship.”
NCPS was established in 1999 to lead VA’s patient safety efforts and to develop and nurture a culture of safety throughout the Veterans Health Administration. The interns work closely with analysts, engineers, physicians, and other professional staff members to address the challenges of patient safety, with a special focus on biomedical engineering, safety and human factors engineering.
Barker had been treated at VA medical facilities in North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan, but he never had an opportunity to understand the operational side of VA health care.
Working as an intern at NCPS, a national program office, allowed him to gain an overview of VA health care.
“I’ve had a really good experience with the VA as a patient, but had never understood how the system fits together.” Barker said. “Though the care seems standardized from a patient’s perspective, making that happen can be a very complex process.”
Barker said it takes a great deal of effort to get numerous individual units to work together to standardize a care system.
“It’s a lot different when viewing care from a national perspective,” he said.
Among other duties, NCPS biomedical engineering interns gather and review information drawn from databases of adverse events and safety alerts from sources inside and outside the VA. The interns also participate in usability testing to evaluate potential hazards with medical equipment and supplies.
“It was a great learning experience,” Barker said. “We interns were not there to shuffle papers. We were given responsibility. The staff gave us meaningful things to do, with guidance, of course; and they were also there whenever we had questions, which was really helpful.”
Barker worked closely with a second biomedical engineering intern, Zahraa Bazzi, a student at Wayne State University, in Detroit.
Bazzi also called the internship “an eye-opening experience,” especially when it came to medical devices.
“For instance, I got to work with the VA Home Telehealth Services. I never realized that the VA has some 80,000 Veterans on telehealth devices,” he said. “That’s a huge number and is growing as (VA) improves and develops their technology.”
Speaking with manufacturers and clinicians about specific devices was an important part of the research the interns conducted.
“The manufacturers were very helpful, as many of the reports that came in from VA facilities had to do with a particular device,” Barker said. “We had to research them to find out about their functionality and how they were designed and worked.”
As a Veteran, the work was particularly meaningful to him.
“The amount of care that goes into what people do at every level is focused on ‘the Veteran comes first,’ and this is really important. That was great to see,” Barker said.
Following the internship and a brief vacation, he returned to school where he is currently the president of the university’s student Veterans’ organization.
“Approximately 100 Veterans attend Michigan Tech, from year to year, ages ranging from 22 to their 60s. Some of the older guys go back to change careers; some retire from the military and decide to improve upon their education,” Barker noted.
“All of us are very dedicated to our academic pursuits, especially considering the hardships many of us faced in the military,” he said. “A focus on academics tends to be much more important to us than to ‘traditional’ students. And as Vets, we tend to stick together, having similar backgrounds and experiences.”
Joe Murphy is public affairs officer at the VA National Center for Patient Safety