As microbiology administrators and directors initiated five and 10 year plans for their departments, they did so incorporating more automation into the lab as information became available. As they saw it, the need started to became more critical as they saw a retirement exodus and read reports of medical technology schools closing for lack of student interest. Except for automated blood culture instruments, microscopes and possibly an instrument to help with bacterial identification (Vitek or MicroScan)-which may not have been synced to the LIS-little instrumentation could be found in the microbiology lab as compared to the other clinical disciplines.
Students graduating from medical technology programs were trained in the classroom with the same manual applications and theory behind them as what was being used in the lab-microbiology, in particular. The knowledge base was intensive, requiring a good deal of memorization.
There is a trade-off, though, as hospital labs and private labs become more automated with more robust databases and rapid turnaround times (TATs) to provide the clinician with vital pathogen identification and/or susceptibility results that either cannot be performed or must be provided by skilled microbiologists. For one, the molecular lab might be in a separate lab, removed from clinical microbiology with only a small crew dedicated to its operation. There may even be automatic plating instrumentation pre-loaded with specimens and plated media, and the machine streaks the required plates for isolation. The technologist becomes an instrument troubleshooter, specimen and plate loader.
Students in training for today’s clinical microbiology lab are being asked to learn a whole new different set of skills than what our cohort of “manual” microbiologists were forced to study. With automatic gram staining machines, would today’s technologist understand why a gram positive cell does not decolorize and counterstain with safranin?
It will not be uncommon for workers entering the job market today to work six decades or more, especially considering the sad state of Social Security, which is essentially non-existent. The economy forces those who would like to retire to work beyond their desired age of retirement. There are, however, people who want to continue working as long as they can contribute in a significant way to their field and learn new concepts along the way. Microbiology, as a discipline, is information intense, and if one doesn’t perform procedures frequently enough, he/she will not become proficient in them. Lab administrators must look at the trade-off they are getting for increasing automation in microbiology.
While automation may be improving TAT, precision and accuracy, it is also leading to the creation of a less “classically” trained technologist who can neither explain the theory behind some of the routine biochemical tests, nor perform them should the automation break down. Being able to recognize/distinguish normal flora versus potential pathogens from a body site is important; doing this quickly and accurately is crucial when the physician is awaiting your analysis on the phone. We were trained to think independently and act professionally.
The learning process doesn’t stop just because someone reaches an “imposed” age of retirement. That would be considered “ageism.” Each of these co-workers can mentor each other in their strengths, resulting in well-rounded techs on both sides, which, ultimately, benefits the laboratory. The older staff member, who is not ready to retire, should be encouraged to work with and mentor the younger technologist on some of the classical microbiology procedures to augment his or her primarily automated education. In turn, the younger technologist can and should be encouraged to work with the older technologist, who may have little-to-no automation experience, in order to round out his primarily manual background. We now have accomplished what we set out to do-hosting a center for productive aging at the work place, while encouraging communication and positive interaction between two or more generations.