A female laboratorians speaking to other laboratorians around her

With record numbers of clinical laboratory professionals retiring or choosing to leave the profession, new laboratorians increasingly find themselves thrust into a leadership position much earlier in their careers than their predecessors. This shift is prompting a number of medical laboratory science programs to incorporate more leadership training in their curricula and leading many recent graduates to pursue additional education, either by obtaining an advanced degree or by completing additional certification programs through professional societies.

“As both a lab professional and an educator, I have seen the shift firsthand,” said Dana Baker, MBA, MS, MLS(ASCP),CM assistant professor in the department of clinical laboratory sciences, School of Health Professions, University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC). “It used to take years before someone would move into a leadership position. Now, a new graduate can walk into a lab and be asked to lead in under 2 years. It is critical that they have some leadership skills and training when they walk in the door.”

Recent studies indicate that nearly one-third of managers in clinical laboratories plan to retire in the next 5 years, according to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). For some areas, such as hematology and microbiology, that percentage is higher. As a generation of laboratory professionals leaves the workforce, younger, less experienced staff are being pressed into management positions they didn’t train for. A need exists to prepare these professionals to take on new roles.

Laboratory management is now part of the clinical laboratory science curriculum at KUMC, Baker noted. Students are also required to participate in interprofessional activities, where they work in teams with students from other programs, such as medicine, nursing, or physical therapy. These activities help prepare future laboratorians for professional interactions they will experience once they work in a lab, Baker said.

KUMC is one of three institutions nationally that offers a doctorate of clinical laboratory science (DCLS)—the others are Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Texas Medical Branch. The programs prepare certified medical laboratory scientists to become doctoral-prepared healthcare practitioners, partnering with clinical pathology to provide evidence-based consultation throughout the healthcare sectors, explained Nadine Fydryszewski, PhD, MS, MLS(ASCP), professor and interim chair of the DCLS Program at Rutgers.

“The Diagnostics Consultation Model is the framework of the Rutgers DCLS curriculum and defines activities related to quality and value improvement in clinical laboratory services delivery,” Fydryszewski said. This includes utilization review intervention, patient care intervention, diagnostic management intervention, and community intervention.

Since its inception in 2014, the Rutgers DCLS program has graduated five students. Currently, there are 18 students in the program, she notes, adding that graduates are ready to be effective leaders in many facets of the clinical laboratory science profession, particularly in consultative roles contributing to the interprofessional team. Graduates have been employed primarily in hospitals, some of which have created new positions, such as “Pathology Utilization Manager” or “Technical Specialist – Testing Formulary and Stewardship Program.”

Getting an advanced degree is one path for preparing for a leadership position in a clinical laboratory, said Tera Webb, MS, MLS(ASCP),CM a professor in the clinical laboratory science program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), a master’s program that emphasizes leadership and also incorporates interprofessional activities. In fact, the Center for Interprofessional Education and Simulation at UAB develops team training activities that involve multiple medical programs, including laboratory medicine, Webb noted.

During the training, students are split into small groups of 15 to 20, are given a hypothetical patient case, and must develop an action plan for the patient, from diagnosis to treatment to follow-up care.

“This teaches the students how to interact with other healthcare professionals and how to work together as a team to make decisions that produce quality and safe patient care,” Webb said. “This shows students the importance of sharing their expertise with one another on the healthcare team. It also gives students in other professions the opportunity to see that laboratory medicine is more than just running tests. Lab professionals are an important part of the diagnostic process on the healthcare team.”

Lab Training Gets a High-Tech Upgrade

One of the challenges many medical laboratory science or technologist students face, especially in rural areas, is a dearth of internship or clinical rotation opportunities. This is due in part to the shortage of laboratory personnel needed to run the internship programs and provide training.

Some colleges and training programs have turned to simulation laboratories to provide a more hands-on experience before a student begins a clinical rotation. In some cases, this allows for a shorter internship, which places less of a burden on hospitals. These sim labs provide students with realistic clinical experience during which they can apply knowledge and skills in a safe environment and develop their clinical, interpersonal, interprofessional, and critical thinking skills. Typically, instructors provide feedback during a debriefing session.

“Simulation laboratories don’t replace the in-person internship, but they may be used to help meet clinical hour requirements,” Baker said. “We have students multitask as they run tests and provide reports. This is a way to demonstrate competency before the student transitions into a real clinical setting.”

Getting the Most From Professional Societies

Another way of developing leadership skills is by getting involved in professional societies. Not only do these organizations have various groups representing the interests of their constituencies, but they also offer additional continuing education and training programs, both in person and virtually.

“A person who is interested in becoming a leader needs to be connected to a professional organization, such as AACC,” said Erika Deaton-Mohney, point-of-care coordinator for Bronson Healthcare in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a member of AACC’s Clinical Laboratory Scientists (CLS) Council. “More than that, they need to be an active member—get involved in a committee, write a paper, speak at a webinar, and look for opportunities to develop skills.”

AACC’s Society for Young Clinical Laboratorians (SYCL), for example, is a place where those new to the field of laboratory medicine can network with their peers, discuss workplace issues (such as time management or how to ask for a raise), and seek career guidance.

“The career path is much shorter than it used to be, so it’s imperative for young laboratorians to have resources available that allow them to learn and benefit from the experience of others and essentially make the learning curve a little less steep,” said Jaime Noguez, PhD, DABCC, director of clinical chemistry at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and assistant professor of pathology at Case Western Reserve. Noguez, who is a member of AACC’s SYCL Core Committee, said the group also helps young laboratorians to develop their management skills and reach academic goals such as getting published or presenting at conferences if interested.  “For those early in their journey, SYCL really helps provide mentorship and resources they need to advance in their careers,” she said.

Clinical laboratorians can also pursue additional training through AACC’s Learning Lab, an online digital platform that provides more than 60 continuing education courses in myriad areas, including clinical chemistry, immunology, microbiology, general lab medicine, and hematology and coagulation. AACC now offers complimentary access for professionals in the field (www.myadlm.org/education/learning-lab).

Advancing the Profession

As the laboratory workforce continues to age, it will be more important than ever to encourage more young people to enter the field of laboratory medicine and pursue leadership positions.

“As a profession, we can do a better job of encouraging young people to enter the field,” Webb said. “Traditionally, we have relied on booths at recruiting events, but we really need to do more in terms of connecting with middle school and high school students.”

Webb supports offering diagnostic medicine as an elective course during high school, much like business, computer science, or foreign languages. She also believes in using social media to advance the profession.

“In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic shining a spotlight on the laboratory, we are commonly not considered part of the healthcare team,” Webb said. “To address these stereotypes and improve awareness of our profession, we must become more visible.”

Deaton-Mohney notes that AACC’s CLS Council, which guides the organization’s activities and programs to address the professional needs of current and future members, is doing just that by reaching out on Facebook and other online communities to let prospective students know what it means to be a clinical laboratorian and the various career paths that are available.

Fydryszewski agrees on the need for outreach. “Public awareness has increased somewhat due to media covering the shortage of laboratorians, but we also need to tell the story of what we do and how the diagnostic services and patient data we have is critical to quality care,” she said. “Promoting this awareness can contribute to an increasing awareness of medical laboratory science as a career path for those with an interest in science and healthcare.”

Attracting young people to the field of laboratory medicine is just one challenge. Retaining them is another, Noguez emphasized. "Competitive compensation and benefits are key, as well as finding ways to show them that they are valued. The importance of promoting a positive workplace culture cannot be overlooked. It appears to me that the prioritization of work-life balance is different for this generation,” she said. “Much more emphasis is placed on job flexibility and spending time with their families and pursuing other interests.”

Ultimately, bringing young people into the field and into leadership roles requires a multipronged effort, experts said: attracting younger people to the field, implementing new ways of training that emphasize not only the science but also the skills and interpersonal elements required to be a leader, and engaging with professional societies, which provide unique education and mentorship opportunities for the new generation of laboratory leaders.

Kimberly Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Lewes, Delaware. +Email: [email protected]