Like the new summer fashions, medical laboratory graduates are hitting the bench of a community hospital lab near you! Full of passion and with an eye for the abnormal, these new grads are poised to set healthcare teams on fire with brilliant diagnostic testing results and speedy turnaround times. With all of this excitement, grads may encounter a disconnect between their expectations and what laboratory directors truly need from their employees.
While both parties want a stable and reliable work environment, laboratory directors are looking beyond the first year of employment, and so should the prospective candidate. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce identified communication, teamwork, customer service, leadership, and problem solving as the top five competencies employers look for in a new employee across industries.1
Here’s how you can apply these skills to an entry-level position in the clinical laboratory, as well as throughout your lab career.
Over the years, a terrible myth has been perpetuated within the field of medicine about the lab: “If you can’t or don’t want to talk to people, go work in the lab.” Not only is this not true, but this attitude can be fatal to the patients the lab serves. It’s no coincidence that Georgetown University listed communication as the number one competency in its 2020 report.
“Excellent customer service means putting others’ needs above your own—most importantly, prioritizing the needs of your patients, colleagues, and employer.”
Interprofessional communication for laboratorians
Interprofessional communication usually takes place over the phone and is documented in a hospital’s electronic medical record system. These interactions require laboratorians to notify patient-facing team members, such as nurses or clinicians, of abnormal results or cancelled tests due to a problem with the specimen. Though graduates of National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS) Accredited Medical Laboratory Technology (MLT) or Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) programs may consider these interactions a “no brainer,” they may not think to ask about the institution’s standard ISBAR format for the interaction or to communicate internally with their laboratory colleagues.2
Internal department communication is also expected to be a critical part of a laboratorian’s daily acumen. Most likely, new graduates have attended clinical rotations within the laboratory where they begin their career. The work culture between clinical affiliates of their educational institution, however, may be hard to decipher. While all facilities will expect the new employee to communicate with the management team about scheduling time off in a responsible way, the new employee may not realize how important it is to ask about the culture: Is overtime ever mandated? How and when do employees sign up to work on their preferred major holiday(s)? If they need to switch their weekend shifts, how does that work? Initial employee training may have addressed these policies, but the responsibility of adhering to them ultimately falls on employees.
Laboratorians are also expected to produce professional written communications, a skill new graduates may not yet possess. Phone and email etiquette are similar, but tone can be difficult to judge from an email. Whether you are reading or composing a message, seek clarity when necessary. On her professional development blog, writer and expert communicator Madeline Miles provides advice and examples of effective written communications in the workplace.3
Self-advocacy is another form of communication that MLT or MLS programs may not teach. Although opportunities such as tuition reimbursement, joining institutional committees, and moving to leadership roles may be available, lab leaders are not obligated to provide employees with such advancement. Regularly communicating your career goals, interests, and successes with peers and lab leaders may help improve transparency around the availability of these opportunities.
|According to the Forbes Human Resources Council, there are 15 effective ways to empower your professional voice, including having a clear vision, linking your contributions to results, being specific and explicit about your accomplishments, while listening and speaking with intent.4|
Set short-term goals to support your long-term career plan. As a laboratory professional, you will likely have many career paths to choose from, so your original long-term goal(s) may change over time. Lean into diverse experiences that satisfy your choice skillsets, as you may be surprised how these experiences influence your career.
A healthy workplace includes intentional teamwork and collaboration, which are both heavily rooted in effective communication. Indeed’s Editorial Team defines successful teamwork and collaboration as achieving a common goal with a diverse group of people.
While the medical laboratory is a critical member of the healthcare team, within itself, it consists of several teams. As a new employee, you need to know what you bring to the table—are you an innovator, leader, supporter, or analytical listener? Taking initiative and putting your training to work to assist others is the easiest way to be recognized as a capable member of the laboratory team. Aiding your coworkers builds trust while increasing your awareness of others’ needs.
For example, if you’re on the chemistry bench in the core lab and are about to cancel a test because of gross hemolysis, look up any other tests ordered on specimens from the same collection. Chances are the hematology and coagulation team will also have specimens that need to be cancelled. Calling them to initiate the cancellation process also benefits patient-facing teams, e.g., a nurse would then only need to notify a patient’s clinician once for an additional blood collection. Our main goal as part of the healthcare team is to provide safe and effective patient care.
In a professional setting, everyone is your customer. Excellent customer service means putting others’ needs above your own—most importantly, prioritizing the needs of your patients, colleagues, and employer.
Providing patient-centered care
As laboratorians, we take the ASCLS Pledge to the Profession as a type of oath: Placing the welfare of patients above your own needs and desires extends to the way you interact with other healthcare and laboratory team members. Patient-centered care revolves quite literally around patients’ needs, and so must your work. All new members of the healthcare team must ensure this concept guides the care they provide.
Healthcare professionals are considered public servants. Disease does not take a day off and neither do those who champion wellness. Hospitals are open 24/7. Healthcare teams work weekends and holidays often on a rotating basis. Day shift contains the bulk of the workload, and training usually happens during this time as well. Most of the senior staff work on day shift, while entry-level positions have traditionally been on evening and night shifts. Being the newest addition to a lab means you may not immediately get your desired shift. However, the critical workforce shortage of medical laboratory professionals in the US has turned this concept on its head. More than ever before, new grads have a better chance of getting a day shift position, though there is no guarantee.
Being a good lab colleague
“Best practice is to remain at one institution for three years before considering other opportunities.”
No matter your shift as a new employee, take the care you provide seriously. Being on time for your shift means being on the bench, completing the hand-off of duties from the previous shift, and noting what problems you’re dealing with before your shift begins.
Bring a small journal to keep in your lab coat pocket for notes. Reference your lab’s standard operating procedures if you don’t remember a certain step of the manual or automated testing methods. Ask clarifying questions about how the laboratory’s policies meet the needs of the patients it serves. Always restock your bench before ending your shift.
Best practice is to remain at one institution for three years before considering other opportunities. Leaving at an earlier time is noticeable on a résumé and can affect future career opportunities. Remember that the clinical laboratory, as a whole, is a small community. Each institution invests in their employees and, to some degree, expects a return on their investment—when staff thrive, so do labs.
“Asking about career progression and other growth opportunities demonstrates your personal and professional commitment to the organization.”
Before deciding that you can no longer be successful at your current institution, make sure to ask about ways to achieve your desired goal(s), accomplishment(s), or roles within the department/company. No institution will be able to provide everything that an employee desires but may provide the most important things that they need. Exploring available growth opportunities where you are shows initiative and a desire to lead.
Leadership and problem solving
Depending on the complexity of the testing performed at a specific facility, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requires medical laboratories to maintain a standard set of leadership positions per the Clinical Laboratory Inspection Amendment, or CLIA, regulations.5 Depending on the institution’s patient population needs, the consequent testing complexity, and staffing capabilities or qualifications, the lab director may take on these roles or delegate them to specific positions. Some of the responsibilities do overlap between leadership roles, including methodology selection and verification, quality assessment (QA), employee training, proficiency testing, and competency assessment.
New employees can capitalize on these opportunities to advance their careers.
The first step is offering to help with accreditation. This could include committee work, QA investigations, quality control (QC) collection and analysis, internal College of American Pathologists (CAP) inspections, and collecting data. Gaining this experience and actively contributing to the overall health of the laboratory department opens doors to specialized training, such as Six Sigma, CAP inspection, and vendor instrument training, or attending conferences and annual meetings.
When volunteering, ask how the task can help shape your future at the institution. Asking about career progression and other growth opportunities demonstrates your personal and professional commitment to the organization.
Advance your career with effective communication
Effective communication is the most important skill a new medical laboratory graduate or employee needs to grow and provide exceptional patient care. When coupled with a willingness to contribute to laboratory accreditation and operations, practicing effective communications will provide you with more opportunities to advance your career. Regularly discuss your career goals to those with influence, initiate conversations about continuing professional development, say “yes” to small initiatives, and be a responsible and reliable team member.
- Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want. https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/competencies/. Published 2020.
- Burgess A et al. Teaching clinical handover with ISBAR. BMC Med Educ. 2020;20(Suppl 2):459. doi:10.1186/s12909-020-02285-0.
- Miles M. 8 Tips on How to Write a Professional Email (With Examples). www.betterup.com. https://www.betterup.com/blog/how-to-write-a-professional-email. Published December 7, 2022.
- 15 Empowering Ways To Advocate For Yourself At Work. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2021/10/18/15-empowering-ways-to-advocate-for-yourself-at-work/. Published October 18, 2021.
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Laboratory Director Responsibilities, Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA). https://www.cms.gov/regulations-and-guidance/legislation/clia/downloads/brochure7.pdf. Published April 24, 2003.