Are You Cut Out for Lab Work?

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Laboratory scientists are in demand as staffing challenges grow

People are drawn to lab work for different reasons. It may be the fascination of seeing organisms proliferate through the lens of a microscope, or the ability to perform a truly vital role in healthcare without having to deal with John Q. Patient. Lab workers are typically—or, perhaps, notoriously—sequestered in departments located in hospital basements, out of sight of patients and clinicians. For this very reason, some suggest lab work is less stressful than other public-facing branches of healthcare.

John Harol, CEO of Lighthouse Recruiting, which specializes in lab recruitment and placement, told ADVANCE it is smart for prospective laboratorians to understand something about the environment in which their careers will unfold, as well as traits of successful lab staffers.

“There is a certain personality type that decides to work in a clinical laboratory,” Harol noted. “I find them to be both nurturing and logical. According to the American Society for Clinical Pathology, roughly 70% percent of medical decisions are made based on laboratory results; medical laboratory scientists are the people who make those results possible. A frequent tongue-in-cheek joke in many clinical labs is, ‘Without the laboratory, your doctor would be guessing.’ There are few careers on earth in which someone has such a measurable impact on the healthcare of a community. Lab work affects thousands of people every day of every week.”

On the Job

Additionally, lab work is imbued with an intrinsic variety of tasks. According to information provided by the School of Health Sciences at Rasmussen College, “By its very nature, a healthcare job is a little unpredictable. You never know what kind of specimen will come through your window. Practically any body fluid or tissue gets processed in a medical lab. The results are virtually endless since all types of human samples come through a lab. For example, a blood sample can be analyzed for cancer tumor markers, blood ABO type, chemistry panels, pregnancy, alcohol and drug levels, bacterial infections, HIV, to name but a few.”

And yet, the world of a laboratorian is not all variety and surprises. The work itself can be continuously demanding in the most tedious of ways throughout a shift. Accurate, life-supporting and treatment-dependent results can only be obtained by working to exacting standards of quality and reproducibility each and every day.

What’s more, lab scientists should expect to work long hours—not always on a 9-to-5 schedule. Harol added, “There are other careers in which scientists can have a more reasonable work-to-life balance. If you decide to become a medical laboratory scientist you can be almost certain that you will miss a few social events because you will have to work an off-shift or a holiday. Sacrifice comes with the job.”

Harol also advised that a widely recognized laboratory staffing shortage is growing more critical by the day across the United States. “Most labs are significantly understaffed and those still working in the lab are having to pick up the slack,” he explained. “Staffs are stretched thin and managers are burning out. Better salaries and automation will help soften the blow, but there is still no true solution that has been identified.”

Of course the upside to the staffing problem is that there are openings across the country for laboratorians. Healthcare cannot exist without reliable lab results, and reliable results cannot be surfaced without a corps of equally reliable medical lab scientists.


Resources

  1. Rasmussen College. School of Health Sciences. Become an Essential Part of Patient Diagnosis. www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/health-sciences/medical-lab-technician/

 

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Valerie Neff Newitt
Valerie Neff Newitt

Staff Writer

1 Comment

  1. Joanne Leasure-Gibbs, M(ASCP), MPA

    I believe the type of personality who decides to study lab work changes from the time I was in training. The more a particular lab accommodates automation, much of it due to the difficulty in finding well-trained techs in the first place, the more programs in medical technology will “attract” persons who themselves are attracted to the field because of the automation aspects in addition to the science behind the particular testing. I was attracted to the clinical microbiology lab precisely because it had, historically, been the one lab with the LEAST amount of automation, which gave me the greatest opportunity to use my brain.
    These days, though, I must sadly admit that microbiology labs, with or without the molecular component to count in their automated arsenal, are steadily competing with the Chemistry labs fortress of machinery especially when one considers a comprehensive & large footprint instrument like the Kiestra – considered total automation (from BD) for the clinical microbiology lab. I listened to a BD webinar on this instrument and the lab director who had it installed explained what today’s microbiology technologist’s learning curve challenges would be training for vs pre-automation days (my days?) in the micro lab: Working with computers, instrumentation troubleshooting, decision-making. The concepts the speaker felt would be less necessary as total automation in microbiology becomes more routine would be organism recognition/characterization and teamwork. If this is what he thought were the current/desired strengths of a microbiology technologist coming out of school, I can only say that I am happy I trained when I did as I feel I received a more in-depth education about bacteria and could differentiate normal from pathogenic organisms on plates in different body areas. The instrument also avoided the need for bench top biochemical tests, which were routine and still are in many labs. These are very helpful for final identifications and preliminary identifications of some organisms. Placing all of this responsibility on the instrument vs in the hands of the technologist places a large burden on one system all the time. What happens when it should go down for longer than an hour or two and all of the lab’s processing or most of it is on the instrument? Can technologists now go in and pull out plates that are “ready” and do the biochemical tests they have not been doing to date in order to finish the work? Organism recognition and knowing which bench top biochemical to perform to help identify the organism is a basic skill that should be retained even if it’s not something that is done on a daily basis.
    I always thought teamwork was an essential aspect of working with a group – always part of the learning curve – regardless of era! Some people do have to be taught how to do it and some do it very well, allowing others to speak and contribute, equally. It certainly shows up as a requirement in the job description! Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t play out so cleanly in the lab, due many times to deficits in management level decision-making, where ideas proposed by technologists – perhaps in the interest of improved efficiency or quality – are readily and swiftly dismissed by management or co-opted by them and credit not given to the originator. Teamwork has always been a part of microbiology work when identifying a particularly difficult organism, for example or having another tech review a complex gram stain. So how can someone dismiss team-based work as not so important in the training of a lab technologist simply because of the imposition of the large automated instrument? Is this what happens in chemistry and hematology on a daily basis? I doubt it. Regardless of the accuracy and precision of any computerized instrument, I still would want the technologist (or perhaps, more correctly, Lab Instrument Trouble Shooter) to be able to acknowledge or identify when the instrument’s decision-making algorithm made a mistake or a mis-call and to manually intervene to modify that result or at least take a look at the plate and see what’s going on! That Artificial Intelligence – AI – is only as accurate as the (clinical microbiology) intelligence of the people who programmed it in the first place! I think it takes someone who is detail oriented, concerned with precision and accuracy (the first time), who likes working with computerized instrumentation (new) and a team player whether you think so or not. Your team are your lab colleagues who should be your source of strength in times of stress and source of compassion in times of sadness or when you’re just not feeling yourself. You may not always agree with each other on principle, but always support one another because there’s strength in numbers. Nursing has used this philosophy since the training of nursing was institutionalized and it has carried them far. I don’t want RN or LPNs certified to work in labs, as recently proposed by CMS, because their science background training is not equivalent to that of a medical technologist (just like they would not certify a medical technologist to sit for the NCLEX exam based on our current training!).
    Let’s not, however, in our quest to make our labs more efficient and/or accurate and produce results in 0.5 to 1 day earlier TAT, dilute our training requirements in medical technology in general and Microbiology, in particular to the point that almost any health care professional can be trained on the job to do it.

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