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Medical Lab Science: The unknown field behind most medical decisions

Medical Laboratory Science is a hidden profession that, although crucial to patient care, rarely achieves the same recognition as other areas in the industry.

Medical laboratory scientists are responsible for running a wide variety of tests to support the healthcare team during the diagnostic and treatment process. We provide information about the best antibiotic for treating an infection or supply data on genetic abnormalities and everything in between. Without the lab, medicine would be severely impaired.

Medical laboratory scientists are well educated, knowledgeable, and hold four-year degrees. We apply for and get accepted into a rigorous program, pass a comprehensive exam, participate in continuing education, and maintain credentials with the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC). Our highly regulated industry is a critical piece of optimal patient outcomes. According to the CDC, 70% of medical decisions rely on laboratory results, yet the occupation remains largely unknown.

Even some of our hospital colleagues are unaware of what we do and the level of education required to do our job. With the recent COVID19 pandemic, the lab industry made headlines amid the realization that protecting human life is profoundly intertwined with laboratory testing. There has never been a better time to speak up and increase the visibility of laboratory careers.

How does such an essential component of healthcare go unnoticed?

Medical laboratory scientists work behind the protective walls of the lab, which only qualified and approved individuals can enter. Laboratories are full of expensive equipment, hazardous chemicals, and infectious agents. We often work unseen and in high-stress situations. We need to produce lifesaving results in short amounts of time. These stressful and potentially dangerous conditions mean few people get to see inside. Consequently, our workspace becomes the black hole of medicine.

We do not see our patients, which means they do not see us either. The distance between us is a barrier to our visibility but not to the excellent care we provide. We know someone is behind every sample, and we care deeply about giving them accurate results. Although we work tirelessly without acknowledgment, there are benefits to being noticed. Expanded recognition can reduce workforce shortages, increase wages, and improve patient care.

What can laboratory professionals do to spread the word about their careers?

A common theme among laboratory scientists is a collective sense of frustration over the lack of gratitude from hospital associates and the general community. Across multiple social media platforms, laboratory workers share anguish over dedicating their lives to a field where their efforts go unnoticed. Individuals are leaving the lab to pursue jobs with better compensation and more support. Between the exodus of trained lab workers coupled with high retiree rates and low recruits, laboratories across the nation are facing severe staffing shortages.

The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) advocates nationwide through politics, but it is also time we take responsibility for ourselves. Instead of simply venting frustrations, take action. Encourage your hospital to celebrate lab week with the same enthusiasm it celebrates other departments. Be proud of what you do and thankful for your job, so it reflects in your day-to-day interactions outside the lab.

Each laboratorian can bring a small piece of the lab out into the community. Share your knowledge with friends and family. Tell your neighbor about the newborn screening you do, or the SARS-CoV-2 assay you helped develop. Show up at your kid’s career day to demonstrate what culture plates look like or to explain the science behind mass spectrometry. Patients and other hospital personnel don’t get to see what we do, so instead, we must tell them.

References

[1] Strengthening Clinical Laboratories | CDC. www.cdc.gov. Published November 15, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dls/strengthening-clinical-labs.html

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