Public Health and Medical Laboratory Professional Identity

April 28, 2023

Dana Powell Baker, MBA, M.S., MLS (ASCP)CM
Dana Powell Baker, MBA, M.S., MLS(ASCP)CM heading to the work in the medical laboratory.
Source: Dana Powell Baker, MBA, M.S.
The year 2023 marks the 48th anniversary of celebrating Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (MLPW). Originating in 1975, MLPW (formerly recognized as National Medical Laboratory Week) was commemorated by the American Society for Medical Technology, later renamed the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). Since 1975, several professional clinical laboratory organizations have come together to form a collaborative committee that annually coordinates MLPW during the last full week of April. MLPW provides medical laboratory and public health laboratory professionals with the opportunity to increase public awareness while enhancing visibility for the vital work done by this impactful workforce.

Public health and medical laboratory professionals are critical to the overall wellness of society. This highly trained, expert workforce provides the laboratory data (results) needed for physicians and other healthcare providers to make informed medical decisions, including whether to perform lifesaving surgeries, prescribe effective medications and/or select treatment plans for a variety of medical conditions, including cancer.

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly raised national and global awareness of laboratory science professionals, critical gaps pertaining to visibility and professional identity of the 21st century healthcare professional remain to be addressed. Every year, during the last week of April, we set aside time to highlight and show appreciation for laboratory professionals. In recognition of MLPW, we seek to answer the following questions pertaining to the professional identity of laboratory professionals. What are the characteristics and code of ethics that guide professional identity? How does professional identity relate to recruitment and retention of public health and medical laboratory professionals? How does professional identity relate to the consequences of existing workforce shortages? Are there examples and projects related to helping build professional identity? This is a point that evokes further exploration and deeper discussion into the intersection of professional identity among public health and medical laboratory professionals.

Professional Identity for Laboratory Professionals

Two medical microbiologists looking at laboratory imaging results on computer screen.
Rodney Rohde, Ph.D. and student looking at laboratory imaging results on computer screen.
Source: Rodney Rohde, Ph.D.
Professional Identity is defined as “the attitudes, values, knowledge, beliefs and skills shared with others within a professional group.” The formation of professional identity as a journey of personal development and social construction is, in fact, a process of “enculturation into the actions, interactions, values and norms of [one’s] profession."

Professional identity combines various aspects of a person’s full identity, including the characteristics of their personality, values, norms and other lived experiences. According to the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the formation of professional identity can be influenced by the following 3 domains:
  • The individual domain: Who am I?
  • The relational domain: Who am I in relation to others?
  • The collective domain: Who am I in relation to the profession?
To explore the facets of professional identity as public health and medical laboratory science professionals, it is important to reflect on who we are on an individual level. MLPW is a good time for public health and medical laboratory professionals to reflect on their personal and professional journeys. What inspired you to become a laboratory professional? What drives and motivates you? How do you bridge personal characteristics to the attributes of this profession?

Dana Powell Baker MBA, M.S., MLS (ASCP)CM and Rodney Rohde, Ph.D. pose with Boston Red Sox mascot.
Dana Powell Baker MBA, M.S., MLS (ASCP)CM and Rodney Rohde, Ph.D. pose with Boston Red Sox mascot.
Source: Dana Powell Baker
Regarding the collective domain or “who am I in relation to the profession,” this can vary based on professional role and the location of one's work. Some work in the hospital supporting the diagnosis of infections and informing the clinical decision-making in antimicrobial stewardship, while other laboratory professionals are employed in state laboratories conducting surveillance to track and protect the public from harmful outbreaks. Many are educating the next generation of emerging laboratory professionals and researching innovative testing practices that will revolutionize testing practices. These professional identities are as diverse as the laboratory professionals working together to address the evolving needs of healthcare and public health. Take a moment to review the standards that shape professional identities amongst public health and medical laboratory science professionals, as it will provide insight into the intersectionality of both workforce.

Code of Ethics for Medical Laboratory Science Professionals

The ASCLS Code of Ethics serves as a guiding principle for the work performed by medical laboratory professionals. Within the code of ethics, laboratory professionals pledge their duties to the patient, to their colleagues and to society in the advancement of the profession. A core tenet of the professional practice includes the provision of laboratory services to patients that are safe, effective, efficient, timely, equitable and patient-centered. In pursuit of upholding these duties, it helps to instill public trust in the laboratory professionals contributing to the overall quality of care while optimizing patient outcomes.

Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals

Similar to the ASCLS Code of Ethics, the core competencies for public health laboratory professionals uphold those working within the profession to effectively and efficiently deliver quality laboratory services. These core competencies outline the knowledge, skills and abilities required for qualified personnel to maintain high standards in their laboratory testing practices. Public health laboratories are highly specialized and the work they do saves lives daily. Collectively, public health and medical laboratory professionals strive to support the health of patients and our communities. Much of the work performed is not as visible as other professions in the healthcare field. Nonetheless, their impact is immeasurable, and their efforts have helped countless individuals enduring a healthcare crisis or a public health emergency.

By increasing awareness of the code of ethics and competencies, it raises the bar on the standards and the lifesaving nature of the work performed by these laboratory professionals. When professionals have knowledge about, and adhere to, this code of ethics, it helps to ensure that the public receives accurate healthcare results in a timely and fair manner. Likewise, a code of ethics provides guidelines for administration integrity, which, in turn, helps foster the public’s trust in the profession.

Venn diagram of clinical and public health laboratory science.
Source: Dana Powell Baker MBA, MS, MLS (ASCP) and Rodney Rohde, Ph.D.

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the fact that public health laboratory and medical laboratory professionals are essential to the overall wellness of society, the profession continues to face workforce development challenges impacting recruitment and retention—many of which have significant influence on one’s perception of their professional identity. The primary challenges that are facing the profession today include:
  • Lack of awareness: Upstream there is a lack of knowledge about the college major—e.g., medical laboratory technician (associate degree), clinical/medical laboratory science (bachelor’s degree), specialists (master’s degree) and the Doctor of Clinical Laboratory Science (doctorate)—from teachers, advisors, counselors and others who advise students in their career trajectories. Downstream, working professionals are not “patient-facing,” so the public does not see or understand their roles.
  • Compensation: Salaries remain inequitable, compared to other healthcare professionals.
  • Education is limited: Due to workforce shortages and consolidation of microbiology and blood bank in healthcare systems, the profession is experiencing a lack of clinical placements (internships).
  • Diversity and inclusion: Laboratory science programs must recruit a more diverse student population that reflects the communities they will serve.
  • Leadership changes: A variety of factors, including retirement, are propagating shifts in laboratory leadership, which cause new laboratory professionals to get thrust into leadership positions early in their careers. Although this creates more opportunities for career trajectories, there is a growing need for leadership education and training to better support the transition into leadership roles.
Additionally, despite increases in awareness and visibility that have been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of public understanding and knowledge about the impactful role and responsibilities of laboratory professionals prevails across disciplinary areas. MLPW provides the opportunity to bring much-needed attention to the benefits and the challenges within the profession.

The Future is Lab

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Laboratory Systems joins this year’s MLPW celebration, contributing the theme “The Future is Lab.” This theme is fitting, as the laboratory workforce continues to highlight its vital role in patient care. The laboratory heroes continue to work through the pandemic to protect the future of our patients, families, friends and colleagues. Amid the workforce and societal challenges, public health and medical laboratory professionals have persevered, contributing their expertise and innovative testing practices to the safety of our communities.
Medical Laboratory Professionals Weeks 2023 flyer.
The Future is Lab.
Source: CDC

Through innovation and resiliency, laboratory professionals continue to optimize patient safety and quality outcomes, while improving the health of our patients. Furthermore, laboratory professionals strive to meet the evolving needs of the public health and health equity initiatives. There is no public health without the impactful work of our public health laboratories, and there is no healthcare team without the interdisciplinary role of medical laboratory professionals.


Public health and medical laboratory professions must begin to better observe and study what other professions and academic programs are doing well. Look for opportunities to continue advocating for the profession, while also supporting the needs of the workforce. Learn about careers in medical and public health microbiology and support pipeline-building initiatives, such as Career Pathways in Public Health Laboratory Science: an APHL-CDC Initiative, which welcomes interested individuals to learn more about the field of public health laboratory science. The profession has come a long way, but the path ahead remains filled with opportunities to enhance awareness of the work that these vital professionals do.

Organizations are increasingly offering scholarships and resources to support advanced education and credentialing for laboratory professionals. Mentorship has become more prominent for not only our early career professionals, but also for those at various stages of their career. For example, ASM’s Subcommittee of Clinical Microbiology Mentors is available to provide career and networking advice to those looking to enter or advance in the field of clinical and public health microbiology. We must continue to explore strategies to emphasize the invaluable contributions of this profession while supporting the needs of our essential workforce.

Please join in celebrating and recognizing the significant contributions of laboratory professionals! Thank a laboratory professional by sharing social media messages and hashtags on your platform of choice, send cards of appreciation, offer to host a recognition event in your organization and extend a heartfelt “thank you” for all that laboratory professionals do (seen and unseen) to save patient’s lives every day.

Author: Dana Powell Baker, MBA, MS, MLS (ASCP)CM

Dana Powell Baker, MBA, MS, MLS (ASCP)CM
Dana Powell Baker, MBA, MS, MLS (ASCP)CM is the Manager for Academic Partnerships with the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL).

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

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