Rebecca Austman’s natural talents in math and science drew her to engineering, but she felt an equal pull to medicine. She found the best of both worlds in biomedical engineering.
Today Rebecca is the Regional Manager, Clinical Engineering – Imaging Technology at Shared Health Manitoba and sits on the CMEPP Board. Optimizing spending is not just a part of her job – it’s something she’s become passionate about. “Having CMEPP as a partner to help assess and plan our technology service management has been invaluable,” she says.
In 2020, you were recognized as an outstanding Canadian biomedical engineer by the CMBES (Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society). What does winning that award mean to you?
It meant a lot. Going through school, you get marks and feedback about how you’re doing. And then you enter the workforce, ‘the real world’, and you’re not getting that constant feedback anymore. So, that kind of external validation that you’re doing a good job felt great and was a huge honour.
It meant a lot to be nominated by colleagues and by one of my mentors, Petr Kresta (a former CMEPP board member for 9 years). He’s somebody I’ve looked up to and admired for many years.
It was also a reminder of the important work we do. I felt a little guilty receiving the award because I think so much of what I do is a team effort. A lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish has been because of working with great colleagues and a great team.
I want to go back a little bit and ask what attracted you to engineering. First, you studied Biosystems Engineering at the University of Manitoba and then you got your PhD in Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering at Western (UWO). Had you always been interested in science?
When I started university, I was debating, should I go into engineering? I’m good at math and science, maybe that’s a natural fit. But I also had an interest in medicine. When I heard about biomedical engineering, it seemed like a good blend of those two interests, combining the engineering and the medical field.
What did you think of biomedical engineering when you started to dive in and learn more about it? Did it seem like a good blend?
Yes, it was a way to apply the knowledge of science to practical medical problems. My research was actually in joint replacements when I was in grad school. There were some things that were a bit shocking (like I wasn’t expecting to work with cadavers!), but it was great. And it was really interesting to work with physicians. I still work with physicians and people in the medical field to try to solve problems using technology and knowledge of science, but now my focus is on imaging technologies.
Before you started working in research labs and in biomedical engineering, you spent several years as a teaching assistant at Western. What was that experience like?
I was a teaching assistant while I was going through grad school at Western and it was a great experience. As we were doing our research, it was expected of grad students to also contribute as teaching assistants. I loved working with the students, experimenting with different ways of explaining things to them. And when you see that it finally clicks and that light bulb goes on, it’s super rewarding. Teaching is something I’ve considered getting back to at some point.
Shared Health works with all Manitoba Health Authorities to support provincial planning, delivery of health services and operational support for Manitoba’s health system. Speaking from the perspective of technology assessment and planning for imaging devices throughout the province, which is your area, how difficult is it to provide safe and effective services across such a large geographic area?
Before joining Shared Health, I was with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. A couple of years ago I started helping with the technology planning for the whole province, and officially transitioned when clinical engineering became a part of Shared Health in 2022.
It’s been very interesting learning about the unique challenges, especially in the rural parts of the province. The rural sites often have low volume, but these sites are highly critical. For example, we have a CT in Thompson in Northern Manitoba – when those systems are down, patients have to travel far distances to access the nearest centre with that same modality. Those are things we have to factor in when we’re doing service planning or planning for replacement. It might be lower volume, but the impact to the patients might be greater than a high-volume system in Winnipeg that has another system at the same site or a nearby hospital.
We hear a lot about mobile CT scanners that go to the patients rather than the patients having to travel. Has that made a big difference?
That’s a timely question because that’s something we’re started looking into. We have mobile technology that moves within a site like a mobile x-ray, but not from site to site or throughout the province, like the mobile MRI or CT modalities that are in trucks. So that is a hot topic right now in Manitoba and something we’re assessing to see how it could be implemented here.
This might be difficult to answer in a couple of sentences, but what makes Shared Health a unique organization?
Diagnostic Services used to be three different organizations – Winnipeg Diagnostics, Brandon Diagnostics, and Diagnostic Services of Manitoba. A few years ago, they merged under Shared Health.
There’s a lot of work on things like central in-take, one central place where physicians can send their requestions. They’re working on trying to balance waitlists, for example, so that no matter which site you’re going to, you’re not waiting way longer to get an MRI at one site in Winnipeg versus another. It’s all about trying to improve access to care and ensuring that no matter where in the province you live, you have access to quality care and the same services.
I want to switch over to your board life. It looks like being a board member is something you believe in. Why is your involvement with CMEPP an important part of your life?
Trying to optimize healthcare spending, both the service and capital side, is a part of my day job, but is also something I’ve become passionate about. And I think that’s exactly what CMEPP does. Having a partner to help assess and plan our technology service management has been invaluable. A neutral, non-profit, third party that gives us advice on how to optimize spending, and then reinvest those savings in improving patient care. There’s never enough funds to go around, and CMEPP is a tool that benefits all Canadian healthcare organizations who participate.
What I do in my day job is within Manitoba, but this is a way to give back and improve things on a broader scale. I’ve learned a lot from being a board member, for example how things work in other provinces.
In terms of your professional life, what are you looking forward to?
There’s a lot of growth happening in Manitoba, and many new, exciting projects I’m going to be a part of. Installing new pieces of equipment and technology and seeing how those projects are improving patient care is very rewarding.
We’re doing a lot of work trying to optimize how we’re servicing our equipment in Manitoba. We’re also developing a scoring scheme, a prioritization process for replacing our equipment. More recently I’ve been a part of the CMBES (Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society) executive, which is a rewarding experience as well since I’ve been able to build a lot of connections across the country. It’s been invaluable to build these connections, to learn about their processes and experiences to try to help improve things in Manitoba.