After spending most of her career in the corporate world, Michelle Hoad was ready for a change. She pivoted to the nonprofit sector, where she spent time at the
Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science and consulting directly with several Canadian provinces before taking on the role of chief executive officer at the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario (MLPAO).
What strategies did you use to raise the MLPAO’s profile and membership?
I believe that people need pretty strong reasons to choose to join an optional association. I also believe that it’s important to build relationships in settings where people can see and hear you.
When I began my role at the MLPAO—which, at the time, was known as the Ontario Society of Medical Technologists—I made a point of visiting labs. In my first three years, I went to more than 50 different labs, which gave me a chance to get in front of people and listen to what they had to say. In today’s technological world, sometimes relationships and goals get lost in translation. Through those in-person visits, I learned a lot about what medical laboratory professionals wanted and what they found challenging.
Right now, in Ontario and across Canada, there is a shortage of medical lab technologists. I heard a lot about how difficult it was for those professionals to come into work—or say no to extra shifts—because they knew their labs were short-staffed and that there was a patient on the other side of every specimen. They wanted to develop a strategy to address that shortage. Because we met people in person, listened, and responded to those needs, our membership grew tremendously, and people began asking us to visit their lab.
COVID-19 changed everything. Although we couldn’t do in-person lab visits, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to speak to the public, which is what our members wanted. That’s how MLPAO became the voice of the lab in Ontario and, eventually, across Canada. In two and a half years, I gave more than 250 media interviews. The impact of that media presence was another reason people felt there was value in joining the association. I’ve now returned to visiting labs, and I can’t tell you the number of people who have come up to me and thanked me for being their public voice. They’ve said they were flabbergasted to see someone talking about the lab when that had never happened before.
What would you like others to learn from your approach?
"I encourage every laboratory medicine professional to find ways to advocate for themselves."
People tend to pay attention to what they can see and feel. When people enter a healthcare setting, they speak to the doctors and nurses. They never see the professionals who work in the lab. But just because those professionals are (often) unseen doesn’t mean they should be unheard.
As a lab professional, you should speak out about what you do. Get involved in conversations about the future of the lab. Get involved in setting budgets. Lab professionals are perceived as quiet and introverted, but many have a lot to say. I encourage every laboratory medicine professional to find ways to advocate for themselves.
Can you share any success stories about raising the profile of the clinical lab?
Over the last two years, we’ve done a lot of advocacy work with our provincial government in Ontario. We’ve held lobby days and met with the Ministers of Health and Labour so that, when the budget is developed, the lab is included.
Last year was the first time in Ontario history that the lab was included in the provincial budget. We have six programs in the province right now; over the next three years, two of those programs will provide free education for medical lab technologists. This is the first time that has ever happened, so it was definitely a major success! That led us to request that all programs be included in the 2024 budget—and we’re starting to hear good news, so that may actually happen.
What is your vision for the future of medical laboratory professionals in Ontario?
Right now, there is a push to “fix primary care,” that is, the people who interact with patients. My wish is that these discussions include those supporting primary care. There have been many announcements about opening new hospitals and long-term care facilities and expanding existing ones. Each of those projects will require lab services to succeed—but that’s never discussed. We need to educate the government that the expansion of healthcare services must include discussion of, and investment in, the lab. You can’t grow primary care without a strong foundation.
What key challenges will laboratory professionals in Ontario face in the near future?
We need to examine lab funding. Right now, Ontario Health provides funding to hospitals, which dictate how that money is spent. Unfortunately, labs get a very small percentage of the budget, and when hospitals take on new projects, they don’t always allocate funding for the lab’s involvement in the work, which stretches resources even further.
"Just because lab professionals are often unseen doesn’t mean they should be unheard."
In Ontario, we also have “community labs,” which are private facilities that perform all diagnostic testing that takes place outside the hospital setting. The community lab sector is trying to expand its reach by taking on testing that is currently performed in hospital labs. There’s a perception that this will be cheaper, but we’re now learning that it isn’t. As a result, turnaround times are increasing because we don’t have enough technologists to interpret the tests. The challenge we’re going to face over the next few years is the idea that privatization can alleviate pressure on hospital services—but that’s not true in practice.
How can laboratorians stay resilient while facing these challenges?
We need to talk about the balance between finding your voice and respecting your position. If your work is difficult, it’s okay to express that and, unfortunately, a lot of lab professionals don’t.
Over the last three years, a research group at the University of Toronto has completed several evidence-based projects that confirmed lab professionals’ struggles with mental health and burnout. That external validation is the first step toward taking action and relieving the stresses medical laboratory professionals deal with every day—but there’s still work to be done.
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- Ishaky L et al. The mental health of laboratory and rehabilitation specialists during COVID-19: a rapid review. AIMS Public Health. 2023;10(1):63–77. doi:10.3934/publichealth.2023006.
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