Behind the scenes, laboratory professionals are processing tests, assays, and other diagnostics to determine data for clinicians to treat patients.
The traditional picture of the laboratory professional with a glass beaker in their hand or perhaps looking through a microscope has evolved. With the level of education provided now as well as the advances in technology, these necessary professionals are called upon to help piece together the diagnostic puzzle for patients, oversee labs, and keep them current on all the regulatory requirements.
“Our professionals are critical. We are often not thought of in direct patient care, because we're laboratory based, diagnostic detective types," explained Rodney E. Rohde, PhD, MS, SM(ASCP)CM, SVCM, MBCM, FACSc regents’ professor, Texas State University, university distinguished chair & professor, Clinical Laboratory Science. “One of the things I like to tell people is that were the mechanics and the ground crew for that airplane you're getting on. You don't think about this every day, but you better hope they're alert, and they're doing their job.”
This field has become even more crucial, especially as the number of tests has increased and the diagnostics have become more complex. According to the CDC, there are more than 14 billion clinical lab tests performed in the US annually. And if you also consider the millions of COVID-19 tests administered over the last few years, this has put an enormous strain on medical laboratory professionals.
“With the projected increases in the need for medical laboratory professionals, and the current high vacancy rates, the profession is suffering from a workforce shortage that is approaching crisis levels for medical laboratory technicians, medical laboratory scientists, histotechnicians and histotechnologists,” the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) wrote on their website.
Although the need for laboratory professionals continues to grow, the field itself is shrinking. ASCLS says some of the reasons for the shortages include: retirements, an increased demand for lab services, changes in the practice of clinical laboratory science due to technology advances, and vacancies that exceed the number of graduates.
Rohde’s clinical laboratory sciences program at Texas State University is a well-established program that goes back to 1974. Students study clinical chemistry, blood banking, clinical microbiology, and hematology. In addition, they are taught all the regulatory aspects of working in a lab, and graduate as certified, licensed professionals.
When students graduate, there are jobs awaiting them Rohde says.
“And while 80 to 90% of them are in hospital laboratories, handfuls of them do end up becoming pathologists, physician's assistants, physicians, and pharmacists,” Rohde said.
Contagion spoke to Rohde recently and he offered more insights into the field and as well as some resources for those who might be interested in finding out more about it.