Greg Alexander

Medical lab techs in high demand

Baltimore Sun, March 2004

“There’s a severe national shortage of medical laboratory technicians. The demand for laboratory testing is great, and it will only increase as Americans continue to live longer and the Baby Boomer generation transitions to the age when increased medical attention is necessary,” warns Vivi-Anne Griffey, program director of the medical laboratory technology program at Villa Julie College. Griffey notes that a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study revealed the need for an average of 13,000 medical lab techs (MLTs) to enter the workforce each year through 2010 for health care facilities to keep pace.

Villa Julie College (VJC), which is one of many schools to offer an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology, also has an articulation agreement with the University of Maryland Baltimore that allows students to obtain a bachelor’s of science degree in medical laboratory technology. Griffey says that the demand is so high for MLTs, however, that most students choose to enter the workforce after obtaining their associate’s degree.

“There is such a burden on hospitals due to the shortage of MLTs that the students who complete the associate degree program entertain very attractive job offers the moment they graduate,” she says, noting that the average pay for beginning MLTs is about $15 to $16 an hour. “Not bad pay, and you only have to go to school for two years,” she adds. “The great thing about the associate degree program is that you get to see what the MLT profession is all about in only two years, and Villa Julie’s program allows students to get hands-on experience via hospital rotations in different areas like clinical chemistry, hematology and microbiology.”

Griffey says that hospitals, too, benefit from the rotations students complete in that they get to observe the students’ skills and work ethic. “Also, most students end up working at the hospital where they did their rotation, so hospitals can cut down on orientation programs and have MLTs hit the ground running.”

In addition to being in high demand, MLTs also enjoy a positive work environment. According to the best-selling 1999 book, Jobs Rated Almanac: The Best and Worst Jobs, MLTs ranked 18th out of 250 best jobs based on such factors as salary, stress levels, work environment, outlook, security and physical demands.

Griffey notes that most MLTs work in hospital labs, although some work in research facilities and physician office laboratories. MLTs primarily perform tests on blood, urine and spinal fluid looking for viruses and diseases and checking for bacteria growth.

“My work is a puzzle, and it’s fun being a detective trying to figure the puzzles out,” says Kelly Drachman, a MLT in the pathology department at Sinai Hospital. Drachman, who has spent 17 years at Sinai in different departments, says that quality control is a big part of her job. “We have to ensure that the work we set out is correct and the best quality possible. Physicians and nurses are counting on us to help them help their patients.”

Like most MLTs, Drachman welcomes the challenge of problem solving in a high stress environment. “It keeps my job interesting, as does the busy job atmosphere. You never get bored as a MLT; there’s always work to be done,” she says. Drachman says that in addition to the many tests that must be performed for Sinai Hospital, her lab also gets outside work from doctors’ offices, nursing homes and other hospitals that do not have the technology that Sinai possesses.

“The great thing about being a MLT is that we get to work directly with the pathologists and other physicians, which is very exciting,” Drachman says. “I learn so much from the doctors by being able to work directly with them, and I get to follow up with the physicians to see how patients are faring.”

This close rapport with physicians also is a bonus for Brenda Lashley, a MLT at St. Joseph Medical Center. “In many health care jobs, you do your part and you have to move on never knowing what happened to the patient or how your work affected the patient’s life. But as a MLT at St. Joseph, we have the opportunity to follow up on the patients and see they’re doing,” she says.

Lashley also points to the close rapport she has with her co-workers in the lab as a benefit. “We have such a great team here at St. Joseph. We have 12 of us here on day shift, and we’re a very close-knit group,” she says proudly. In most labs, medical technologists (MTs) supervise the MLTs; however, Lashley says that — despite the hierarchy — everyone still performs the same duties in her lab. “Typically, the only difference between a MT and a MLT is two years of school and a few more dollars an hour,” she laughs. “The wonderful thing about our lab is that we all chip in. If we are short of MLTs, the supervisor or lead tech will jump right in to help. There’s no line drawn saying that a supervisor will only do certain tasks and that MLTs are restricted to other tasks. We all do the same duties and tackle challenges together.”

Lashley, who has worked at St. Joseph for over six years, previously worked in rural hospitals in North Carolina and Virginia, but welcomed the change to work in a metropolitan setting. “We had limited resources in the small hospitals, so we had to send everything out. However, at St. Joseph, we get to do everything. The moment I arrived here, I knew this is what it’s really all about.”

For more information on Villa Julie’s associate degree program, check out Other schools that offer training programs are Allegany College of Maryland, Morgan State University and the Community College of Baltimore County. Certification is administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology, and students take the certification exam after meeting their academic and laboratory education requirements.

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