Celebrating Medical Laboratory Professionals – We Save Lives Every Day!

April 21, 2020

As the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, keeping the world in its grip, medical and public health laboratory professionals remain in the trenches conducting the day-to-day testing. To date, they have performed more than 1 million COVID-19 tests, on top of the 13 billion laboratory medicine tests already conducted annually in the U.S. With Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (MLPW) upon us, it's way past time to celebrate the profession and raise awareness of just who we are and what we do.

A clinical microbiology laboratory receives a package of COVID-19 samples with encouraging words written by the sender.
A clinical microbiology laboratory receives a package of COVID-19 samples with encouraging words written by the sender.
Source: Microbiology Laboratory, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

We Have Always Been Here!

MLPW originated in 1975 as National Medical Laboratory Week, under the auspices of the American Society for Medical Technology (now the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, ASCLS) MLPW is the last week in April, and is coordinated by a collaborative committee of representatives from 17 national clinical laboratory organizations, including ASCLS and ASM. Now in its 44th year, MLPW is a celebration of the profession with a unique opportunity to increase public understanding of, and appreciation for, medical laboratory professionals and pathologists who play a vital role in health care and patient advocacy!

Our profession has always been here. We have been conducting critical and lifesaving laboratory medicine testing for decades. By the mid-1800s, lab tests had been introduced to detect tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and diphtheria, but cures for these diseases would not come until later. Physicians also began to study pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and other physiological indicators, even though simple, practical instruments to measure these were not developed until the end of the 1800s. We now know how critical diagnostic tests and physiological indicators are, and thus, laboratory medicine has evolved into its own profession. In fact, we often say that medical laboratory professionals are the doctor’s doctor: physicians (and others) rely on our expertise on 1000s of laboratory tests, from the pre-analytical to the post-analytical work.

#WeSaveLivesEveryday in the #MedicalLaboratory! We hope the world is watching and will remember how critical we are to healthcare. It is our time to shine!

Who Are Medical Laboratory Professionals?

Have you ever wondered who conducts the detailed laboratory testing for your annual exam (such as cholesterol and glucose levels) and analyzes the results? If you thought that it was your physician, or a nurse, you are incorrect.

In fact, medical laboratory professionals provide up to 70% of the data physicians and others use to make informed decisions about diagnosis and treatment plans. More visible healthcare professionals may take your blood or other types of specimens for analysis. However, medical laboratory professionals conduct complex and important work on those specimens, while largely invisible to patients, and the results of that work may very well save your life. Here are just a few of the important tests we conduct:

Doctors rely on laboratory test results to make informed patient diagnoses. Patient history along with physical signs and symptoms are vital, but most diagnoses need confirmation that only laboratory tests can provide. Laboratory professionals also contribute to wellness testing, guiding treatment and monitoring patient progress. In addition to performing the tests, these professionals also have a critical role in helping clinicians know how to collect specimens and interpret test results. Laboratory professionals work in a variety of environments including hospital laboratories, small clinics and public health laboratories.

​How Do You Become a Medical Laboratory Professional?

There are 2 types of medical laboratory professionals:

  • Medical laboratory scientists (MLS) (also known as medical technologists or clinical laboratory scientists) must have a Bachelor’s of Science (B.S.) degree in Medical Technology or the life sciences.
  • Medical laboratory technicians (MLT) must complete a 2-year Associate Degree with similar courses and clinical practicum as the B.S. degree, but with less emphasis on highly-complex laboratory techniques, such as advanced molecular diagnostics or blood bank specialization.  MLTs also have fewer opportunities for advancement as a lab supervisor, lab manager or hospital administration.
Dr. Rohde and a student, Joanna Miranda, studying samples through a microscope.
Dr. Rohde with one of his students, Joanna Miranda. Joanna was the 2019 Outstanding Student in the Texas State CLS Program and is now a MLS (ASCP) professional.
Source: Rodney E. Rohde

To work as either a MLS or MLT, you need to be certified by the Board of Certification of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) once you have a degree. The best way to prepare for the certification exam is to complete a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (AACLS)-accredited program, a clinical internship in medical technology or the ASM-Weber State Microbiology Certification Program. These programs prepare students with a combination of lectures and clinical rotations in hematology, clinical chemistry, microbiology, mycology, parasitology, immunology, immunohematology (blood bank) and sometimes, genetics. They are offered through hospitals and universities and the time it takes to complete them varies according to program. 

To work in some states (such as New York, Florida and California), you'll also need to be licensed. Upon passing the certification exam, you can apply for a license. It's very important to understand the requirements of the particular state you will work in versus the state where you obtain your degree. For example, once students in our Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) program at Texas State University finish their degree and pass the MLS (ASCP) exam, they are able to work in any clinical laboratory in Texas. However, if our students move to California, there may be restrictions on their scope of work until they obtain a California license.

How Has the Profession Evolved?

Nearly 20 years ago, an idea arose to train clinical laboratory scientists at the doctorate level. The analogy was made to those who earned the doctor of pharmacy degree, which had proven to be a significant step forward for that profession. Why not have doctoral-level individuals become leaders in the clinical laboratory?

When this clinical doctorate was conceived, it was not clear what these individuals would do with the additional training.

A new role came into focus as diagnostic management teams (DMTs) continued to grow in number and impact. DMTs are advanced-practice laboratory medicine specialists who are part of the healthcare team that assists physicians (and others) in the selection and interpretation of the most appropriate laboratory tests. About 10 years ago, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine pathology professor Dr. Michael Laposata proposed that doctorate-level clinical laboratory professionals could lead DMTs. There are currently 3 schools that offer Doctorate in Clinical Laboratory Science (DCLS) programs: Rutgers University, the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. Each of these are 3- to 4-year programs that involve participating in DMTs, rounding with clinical teams in the hospital and taking courses to understand diagnostic testing in areas outside the clinical laboratory, such as pathology or oncology.

Each DCLS program graduates 5-10 individuals per year, so most of the individuals currently leading DMTs are DCLS graduates. They start their career by performing tests on patient samples at the bench, then become supervisors and then obtain a doctoral degree. The clinical experience during their training focuses on building the knowledge and confidence to provide consultations on laboratory test selection and patient-specific result interpretation.

To put it plainly, these individuals are medical pioneers. The DCLS fills the space between the silos that sometimes exist between physicians and laboratory medicine. That connection – and the connection with the patient – bridges the gap that is critical for professional recognition, awareness, patient safety and healthcare quality.

Please note: A DCLS degree does not fulfill the education requirement for many laboratory-related certifications and in states that require licensure to direct a laboratory. If you plan to become a laboratory director or fellow, or to obtain a laboratory-related certification, please research the degree requirements prior to beginning a DCLS program.

We Need More Medical Laboratory Professionals

Our profession is at a critical crossroad of employee shortages. Employment in healthcare occupations overall is projected to grow 19% from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.3 million new jobs. This expected growth is due to an aging population and federal health insurance reform that increases the number of individuals who have health insurance, and therefore access to healthcare itself.

No surprise, right? Well, the difference for our profession is that we have long been hidden from public consciousness. Educators and career counselors at all levels are not aware of our important role in the healthcare ecosystem. This upstream problem of awareness at the pre-college level, coupled with the downstream problem of not being “seen” by patients and family members, has an antagonistic effect for growing our professional numbers. I, and many others, believe this is one of the most serious issues facing our profession.

Importantly, during the current SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic, there are roughly 310,000 medical laboratory professionals in the U.S.: as Medical Laboratory Scientist Megan Ledford pointed out, that's about 1 laboratory professional for every 1130 citizens in this country. This pales in comparison to the 2.9 million nurses and almost 1.25 million physicians. Those professions are experiencing shortages too, but everyone hears about it, not about medical laboratory professionals. We can and must do better for healthcare.

Low salaries and burnout are contributing factors to the unprecedented and dangerously low numbers of practicing medical laboratory professionals. A
ccording to a 2020 laboratory professional survey, 85% of clinical laboratory professionals reported burnout, 60% inadequate compensation and more than a 33% complained of inadequate staffing. 

In an effort to help address clinical microbiology staffing issues, ASM, under the leadership of Susan SharpSusan Harrington and Peggy McNult, has collaborated with Weber State University to develop a post-baccalaureate certificate program in clinical microbiology. This program was designed to be more cost effective than other programs and present a rapid pathway for individuals to find employment in a field where they are desperately needed. Certification is internationally recognized and may qualify individuals to work in 1 of the 11 U.S. states and Puerto Rico that require licensure for employment in a medical and/or public health laboratory.

What are you doing to increase the visibility of the #MedicalLaboratory? It is up to us to raise awareness of how #WeSaveLivesEveryday in the shadows of healthcare. One way to help raise our visibility is to let your organization know that you are a resource for interviews, podcasts, blogs, articles or other vehicles to help brand our profession and raise awareness. It’s time to tell our story of this amazing profession!

Additional Reading

Author: Rodney Rohde, Ph.D., SM(ASCP), SVCM, MBCM, FACSc

Rodney Rohde, Ph.D., SM(ASCP), SVCM, MBCM, FACSc
Rodney Rohde, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Translational Health Research Initiative at Texas State University.