The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a critical need for medical laboratory professionals —or those who work tirelessly behind the scenes in laboratories across the United States— to develop, perform and interpret diagnostic tests, among other duties.
The Need for Medical Laboratory Professionals
Nationally and locally, medical laboratory professionals fill roles at medical centers, but there are often more job openings for medical laboratory scientists and medical laboratory technicians than there are graduates to fill those vacancies. While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the profession of medical laboratory science, it has also stressed laboratories that already faced issues with recruitment and vacancies.
Melissa B. Miller, director of the Clinical Molecular Microbiology Laboratory and of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at the UNC Medical Center, trained as a medical laboratory scientist. In 2020, she spearheaded development of one of the first COVID-19 tests in the United States. Miller said the MLS degree provided a broad-based training that continued to benefit her as she specialized in medical microbiology and infectious diseases as a postdoctoral fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“The lab is often forgotten, quite honestly,” Miller said. “Without people in the laboratory, and with high-level expertise in the laboratory, really, all of medicine suffers. It crosses all disciplines.”
Miller explained that test results depend on medical laboratory scientists to run the tests, review their quality, and review test results.
“It’s the very foundation of medicine,” Miller said. “Without the lab, you cannot practice medicine in a way that most people would want to practice.”
According to the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences, North Carolina has four baccalaureate-level programs for medical laboratory scientists across the state, one of which is offered in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine. Fifteen accredited associate-level programs offer technician-level training. Many of these programs are small and have very limited capacity in their class sizes due to the specialized training that is required for program completion. Programs also often face difficulties recruiting students due to limited visibility of the profession. However, graduates of these laboratory programs are in high demand and find employment quickly, given the shortages in the workforce both at nationwide and statewide levels. According to Health Resources and Services Administration’s allied health workforce projections, there is projected to be a 19 percent increase in demand for clinical laboratory technologists nationally between 2016 and 2030.
The Role of the Laboratory During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Miller credited the UNC Medical Center and its staff with supplying needed resources in order to develop tests to detect COVID-19. As of late January, the UNC Medical Center has performed more than 200,000 COVID-19 tests, in addition to facilitating their day-to-day responsibilities.
“We went from the mindset of serving the medical center to serving the health care system, which is serving the state,” Miller said. “We in the lab have had the support all the way to the top levels of the health care system. I have really felt that, and our lab has really felt that. No longer are we forgotten.”
The COVID-19 test developed in Miller’s laboratory attracted nationwide attention; the urgency and need highlighted the profession.
“Never before in my career, and probably in this history of laboratory medicine, has there been such a spotlight on testing,” Miller said. “The ability to highlight what the lab is doing has really been the one highlight of this pandemic.”
Miller, who majored in medical technology, did not want to pursue medical school and explored career paths when she learned about laboratory work. She encouraged those who enjoy STEM-based studies to consider the field.
“I learn something new every day,” Miller said. “It’s an exciting field; you never know what’s going to be around the corner.”
Martha McGee ’93, the director of McLendon Clinical Laboratories, said the onset of the pandemic brought to light the shortage and the importance of the ability to adequately staff the laboratory.
“These people are in great demand, and they’re highly sought after,” McGee said. “I try to make [employees] feel how valuable they are, because hospitals can’t run without laboratories.”
McGee emphasized that the pandemic highlighted the critical work that laboratory employees do every day and said that protecting the health and safety of staff while continuing to run the laboratory was a top priority. She advocated for the use of personal protective equipment, staggering staff, and keeping staff six feet apart, depending on guidance at the time.
Facilitating High-Quality, Person-Centered Care
In addition to facilitating COVID-19 testing, McGee said the laboratory also juggled the day-to-day testing and laboratory work associated with other health care needs.
“What allowed us to start bringing patients back into clinic for routine visits was our ability to test for COVID,” McGee said. “That was critical in regaining our normal operations at the hospital.”
McGee said the laboratory has a clear focus of service to our entire state, which extends UNC Health’s philosophy of care.
“Even in these challenging times, that’s why we come to work every day,” McGee said. “Throughout this pandemic, we’ve been able to provide a lot of support and expertise to our affiliate hospitals.”
“We’re really proud of our staff, how they’ve handled it, and how they’ve adapted,” McGee said.
“There has been a lot of juggling and a lot of balance, but it all comes back to our ability to test, and you have to have trained laboratory people to test. […] “If we don’t have people to work in the lab and do this high-complexity testing, none of that happens.”
McGee said graduates of the Division of Clinical Laboratory Science undergraduate and master’s degree programs are well-suited for a career in the laboratory.
“They are beyond compare,” McGee said. “They’re so well prepared, and they are prepared not just for the good times, but for the bad times as well. They’re flexible and adaptable, and that’s what we really need in today’s environment.”
Susan Beck, the division director, said that the program works closely with clinical laboratories to provide educational experiences for their students.
“We are very grateful to the staff for teaching our students while dealing with all the COVID-19 restrictions and complications,” Beck said.
Beck said that the clinical laboratory profession is an excellent choice for students who want to use their love of science to make a difference in the lives of others.
“This is an exciting time to enter the profession,” Beck said. “Not only are there job openings for new graduates, but there are many ways that practitioners can advance in their careers. Graduates of our program are serving in key roles in clinical laboratory testing, research and development, administration, education and industry.”
McGee said the laboratory greatly benefits from the expertise of alumni from the division’s programs.
“When May comes around, we’re always excited because we have new people to hire.”
The Division of Clinical Laboratory Science is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine. Miller, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Pathology and Lab Medicine. Susan Beck, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CM, has served on the faculty since 1980.