This past year was like no other. The world was forced to lean on health care workers in a way that it hadn’t previously done. The pandemic showed us the strengths and the weaknesses of our hospital and our health care systems. It also shined a light on the clinical laboratory more than ever before. People were talking about laboratory testing, who was doing that testing, and if the testing was reliable.
This increase in testing and reliance on the laboratory highlighted another issue that professional organizations such as CLMA, ASCLS, and ASCP have been warning about for years—the impending workforce shortage.
In recent years, though laboratory diagnostics has been an expanding area of health care, there has been less awareness and promotion of the field. This lack of awareness has led to decreased enrollment in medical laboratory science programs and clinical internship sites throughout the US, prompting their closure and further narrowing the pool of applicants. So, as the baby boomer generation retires, laboratories are beginning to face a shortage of bench techs and managers.
Reaching out to help create an interest in allied health careers, especially those pertaining to medical laboratory science, is crucial to ensure our workforce is robust enough to continue to help doctors and nurses accurately diagnose, monitor, and treat their patients as the role of the laboratory expands.
Ever since I started working in laboratory medicine, I’ve wanted to do more to give back and teach young people, career advisors, and high school counselors about this rewarding career. Over the past five years, I’ve developed career day and laboratory tour presentations for local high schools and health care related professional organizations to help expose students to medical laboratory science and improve the career pipeline in the future.
When I do outreach, I think back to my high school years when I knew wanted to go into health care, but didn’t know how to get there without becoming a doctor or a nurse. Here are some of the things I've learned along the way.
Keep it simple
Bear in mind that laboratory medicine, while easy enough to explain on a high conceptual level, gets very detailed and complex when it comes to the different areas of the laboratory and the daily tasks a laboratory scientist performs. I found that including basic information in my presentations about how a department is run and what commonly known diseases it diagnoses helps students understand the work that laboratory scientists do. Including photos of the laboratory—preferably your laboratory if available—also helps students to visualize what occurs on a daily basis.
Get students involved
Here are examples of the interactive activities that I have used to engaged students during my presentations:
- A tray of slides with different samples on them (e.g., acute myeloid leukemia, malaria, fungus)
- Parasites, or anything else that’s gross!
- Blood typing, if allowed by the school district
- Expired micro plates and colored water to simulate inoculation
Keep students entertained
We all dread giving a sleep-inducing presentation. One way to keep students entertained during the presentation is to talk about interesting cases and show them pictures of cool things you’ve found in the lab throughout your career. Personal stories seem to work best, because when you’re speaking honestly from the heart about how this career has impacted you, you will resonate more with students.
I also recommend showing students a video created by Dr. Zubin Damania, aka ZdoggMD, as part of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week in 2016. It is a parody of what happens in the lab. Damania covered the song “In Da Club” by 50 Cent and called it “In Da Lab.” I always tell students that though this is a parody, it is one of the most accurate depictions of what happens in the laboratory every day. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to watch it. Besides it being accurate, it’s relatable. So, while “In Da Club” might be a little out of date now, it’s still a funny parody with popular music that students will enjoy.
Don’t get discouraged if your first presentations don’t go as you had planned. It takes time to refine your presentations and lectures to effectively reach high school students to expose them to the laboratory profession. But it’s definitely worth it. I recently heard from a coworker whose daughter attended one of my presentations that I had inspired her more in a 45-minute presentation than my coworker had during their 14 years as a medical laboratory scientist and parent. No one expects perfection right off the bat, but with time, you can help inspire others to join a profession that saves lives every day.