Program launched by a Rochester-area technical center is intended to provide early study for students interested in a career in clinical laboratory medicine
Acute shortages of clinical laboratory staff across all types of skills is one of the big stories of this new year. It is also triggering unconventional approaches to reach students in high school and interest them in careers as medical technologists (MTs). One such example is a high school in New York that now offers a top-level medical laboratory program designed to create interest—then train—high school students for a career in laboratory medicine.
A recent CLP podcast, titled, “Has a High School Found the Solution to the Laboratorian Shortage?” outlined the Medical Laboratory Assisting and Phlebotomy program that is offered to students at Western Monroe and Orleans Counties (WEMOCO) Career and Technical Center in Spencerport, New York, a suburb of Rochester.
“With the acute shortage of medical technologists, this effort by one high school to reach students early and encourage them to pursue a career in clinical laboratory medicine should be of interest to all laboratory professionals,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report.
“Our juniors and seniors in high school will learn about 60 employable laboratory skills,” said Jim Payne (above), a Medical Laboratory Assisting and Phlebotomy program instructor at WEMOCO. “They learn not only medical laboratory skills, but [the skills] are transferable to biotechnology, to chemical labs, food labs, environmental labs, research, forensics, and so on. The goal is each individual student comes out skilled in all 60 skills.” Clinical laboratories may want to explore creating similar programs with high schools in their own areas. (Photo copyright: Twitter.)
Dynamic Curriculum of Clinical Laboratory Skills
During the first year of the WEMOCO program, students learn skills that Jim Payne, a Medical Laboratory Assisting and Phlebotomy program instructor at WEMOCO, stated he learned in college. These include:
- using microcutters and spectrometers,
- titration techniques,
- blood smears, and
- college-level immunology, hematology, and chemistry.
Students spend 40 hours drawing blood samples from real patients in local medical laboratories and can earn a certification as a Phlebotomy Technician after completing the necessary coursework.
During the second year of the program, students learn college-level:
- advanced plating,
- antibiotic testing,
- catalase testing,
- urinalysis, and the
- basics of genetic testing.
They also receive their certifications in American Red Cross CPR/AED and First Aid and spend 80 hours actually working in local clinical laboratories. Upon completion of the second year of coursework, students can earn a certification as a Certified Medical Laboratory Assistant.
“In both cases, they can get jobs straight out of the program,” said Payne in the CLP podcast. “But a lot of our grads go on to college for medical laboratory careers.”
Overcoming Vocational School Stigma
Recruiting students into the program was initially challenging as some of the negative stigma surrounding non-traditional coursework had to be overcome. Vocational education is now referred to as career and technical education and the WEMOCO program is more academically focused than previous vocational studies. Students can obtain some college credits when completing the two-year program.
“With my students, when we are teaching them how to do the math around making laboratory solutions, for example, that requires algebra,” Payne explained. “And they have to actually make something with the algebra and suddenly it starts to make a lot more sense than the way that they were taught in a traditional high school.”
In addition, some students interested in the program struggled in a typical high school environment due to lack of direction, according to Payne. However, when those same students found their focus, discovered a passion, and were motivated and challenged, they flourished.
Originally, Payne gave a talk to potential enrollees. But he found there was more interest if students were given a hands-on experience at their first exposure to the program. He also lets current students interact with interested students and allows them to answer any questions in a student-friendly manner.
“Students who are interested in the program come in, they get lab coats on, they get gloves on, and they are then told a story about a case and have to perform a few experiments to try to determine what is wrong with a patient. They actually do things,” Payne explained.
Multiple Career Paths in Clinical Laboratories upon Graduation
One advantage to completing the two-year WEMOCO program is that students can explore all the different careers in clinical laboratory medicine and are offered opportunities to work in medical laboratory situations. Phlebotomy students perform 40 hours of work in a blood lab with a goal of performing 50 successful sticks, although many students perform more than that.
“I have students who are under the age of 18 drawing blood on real patients with real samples with these companies’ trainers. It’s like they have been hired,” Payne said. The medical laboratory assistant work is broken up into increments of two hours a day over the course of several months.
Another benefit to the WEMOCO program is that students are prepared for a job right out of high school, which pleases both the students and the parents. Many graduates of the program go on to college to study different fields within the clinical laboratory profession.
Attracting Young Students to the Clinical Laboratory Profession
Payne believes it is important to get young kids interested in the medical laboratory profession in the lower grade levels. His suggestions for stoking that level of interest include:
- Developing programs that are age-appropriate but contain medical laboratory concepts.
- Outreach programs where clinicians talk to students in the lower grades to spark interest.
- Outreach programs where kids can perform simple experiments like staining onions and seeing results.
- Telling stories and explaining the roles labs play in helping patients.
- Holding field trips where students visit local clinical laboratories and observe medical laboratory professionals.
- Opportunities for students to shadow medical laboratory technicians so the kids can imagine themselves in the profession.
- Participating in local activity day/career day events.
He also believes that clinical laboratory professionals should promote their field at every opportunity.
“The biggest thing is actively advocating for the profession. Any chance I get, I’m going out and trying to talk to anyone about the clinical laboratory. Try to have some statistics in your back pocket or other things that can be a good talking point and make a powerful statement to people,” Payne suggested.
Determining unique ways to garner interest in the medical laboratory profession is a crucial step in mitigating staffing shortages. Clinical laboratory leaders may want to participate in community outreach programs and serve as advocates for their profession.