Jim Payne is currently the medical laboratory assisting and phlebotomy instructor at the WEMOCO Career and Technical Education Center in Spencerport, NY. Prior to his current position, Jim worked at the University of Rochester as a research technician in the laboratory of Dr. Howard Federoff and then in the laboratory of Dr. Elizabeth Grayhack. Jim started his program from the ground up. Over the course of ten years, he developed a top-level medical laboratory program for high school juniors and seniors. The program not only prepares students for direct employment in a medical laboratory but also puts them ahead of the game by teaching them collegiate level content.
The hidden nature of laboratory medicine hurts the profession
The medical laboratory is currently experiencing an employment crisis due to a variety of factors, including it being a “hidden profession” in medicine. To put this crisis in perspective, medical lab professionals perform more than 13 billion laboratory tests annually in the US, but 15 states have staff shortages of more than 25 percent.
Being a “hidden profession” means that there aren’t large numbers of students entering medical laboratory colleges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the industry should grow by 26,000 jobs per year, but according to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), only 5,000 students graduate per year.
Because the general public lacks knowledge about the medical laboratory profession, we need to think of alternative ways to reach young people while they are in high school and before they make decisions on where they will go to college.
An early introduction to the medical laboratory
One way to reach young people before they decide on a college is to create high school programs that provide students a chance to build laboratory skills while learning collegiate level content. Such a program would help train them for entry level work, such as a medical lab assistant (MLA) or phlebotomy technician (PBT).
These students would learn about the careers available in the medical laboratory and be provided the opportunity to test their interest in the profession by working in the field.
Because they would know with more certainty that they want to pursue a medical laboratory career, students who get a chance to explore their options in medical lab while in high school and during entry-level employment may be less likely to change majors.
It can be done
I have developed my own my high school program through a local career and technical education high school. The program is for juniors and seniors, who participate in the program two and a half hours per day. The program trains them in employable laboratory/phlebotomy skills that are incredibly valuable as it:
- provides students with deep knowledge about possible career paths,
- provides them with real experience working in external laboratories where they can test their new lab skills as part of 120 hours of co-op work,
- increases their professional network through guest speaker/industry mentors,
- helps them gain theoretical knowledge at the collegiate level, and
- helps them earn industry certifications like in phlebotomy, MLA, and CPR/AED.
If the medical laboratory industry were to push for programs like my school’s high school program, we could introduce thousands of students to medical laboratory careers and have thousands of young people either enter entry-level positions or college-based medical laboratory education.
Either way, high school programs directly address two main issues of the workforce shortage: increasing public knowledge about the medical lab profession and recruiting new workers. This is certainly not the only answer, but it does get the industry closer to the goal of full medical laboratory staffing.