By - November 07, 2023
Without medical laboratory professionals, patient diagnosis and care all but stop. Even so, the past several decades have seen a decline in medical laboratory education programs, and a shortage of medical laboratory professionals entering the field. Lack of public knowledge about pathology and severe, widespread burnout, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbated an already dangerous shortage of professionals.
Without laboratory professionals, medical institutions cannot function. To address this critical need, universities, hospitals, and laboratories are teaming up to provide creative solutions, including the establishment of Medical Laboratory Sciences (MLS) programs.
There is no one-size-fits-all playbook for starting an MLS program. To find out how some newly created programs got off the ground, we spoke to several professionals who were pivotal to the implementation of successful programs in their local areas.
The impetus for the development of MLS programs is felt acutely in hospitals. To fill empty benches in laboratories, local institutions often reach out to nearby colleges, like the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (UW-P).
UW-P is a public university located near Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin. It’s a small school with less than 5,000 commuter students, most of whom were born and raised in the area. The unemployment rate here is lower than the national average, where clinical laboratory technologists and technicians rank 91 on the Top 200 Popular Jobs List in Wisconsin, compiled by US Wage.1,2
After graduation, many UW-P students choose to remain in Wisconsin, making them an attractive source of employees for local hospital systems.
Administrators of UW-P’s College of Natural and Health Sciences had been actively forging relationships with local hospitals for years, when the topic of starting an MLS program was broached. “A local hospital in our own backyard, Froedtert South, specifically requested that we initiate this undergraduate program. To accommodate that request and fulfill a need in our local community, we created the Medical Laboratory Science program,” says John S. Bennett, PhD, JD, CHPS, Academic Director, MLS at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Dr. Bennett teaches microbiology and immunology as a visiting assistant professor in the College of Natural Health Sciences.
“We were able to do this within our existing infrastructure, inside the College of Natural Health Sciences,” he explains. UW-P’s MLS program is funded by the University. No specific scholarships are available for the program’s students, but the school helps them find temporary work at local hospitals as phlebotomists. The work pays well, and the hospitals accommodate school schedules—a huge plus. “Once our kids are in each hospital’s clinical lab doing their rotations, they also get laboratory job offers,” says Dr. Bennett. “We’ve been fortunate to win over hospitals and clinical labs because Parkside students accept their jobs and stay. We’d been competing with schools where students get trained and then leave the area. Our students have very little interest in moving away, which is appealing to our partners,” he adds.
The partnership between Froedtert and UW-P is not contractually exclusive. Froedtert is involved in MLS programs at multiple schools. In turn, UW-P currently partners with three separate hospital systems, and that list is growing.
The number of students enrolled in the MLS program, which started with just two students, is also growing. To date, there have been 15 MLS program graduates, with the third graduating cohort currently enrolled. Most enrolled students identify as female and around 50% are representative of minority groups.
Now that in-person school presentations have resumed, so has recruitment. “We’re just starting to reach out to high schools. Visitors weren’t allowed for a long time and COVID hampered our ability to get the word out. Now, the reaction we get from future candidates is immensely enthusiastic and positive,” says Dr. Bennett.
The results so far are stellar, and a win-win for everyone involved. “UW-P’s third cohort graduated in May 2023. Every one of our students was hired four months before graduation,” says Dr. Bennett.
In addition to a central laboratory, Alverno Laboratories manages more than 30 hospital laboratories across the Midwest. Access to medical laboratory education was woefully lacking in the Chicago area, when Alverno’s upper management started to look for a solo laboratory training partner. They started having conversations with educators at Oak Point University in 2019. And then COVID hit.
“Our biggest challenge during COVID, besides being overwhelmed with testing and caring for critically ill patients, was the large number of staff who decided upon early retirement. Others who weren’t anywhere near retirement age decided the stress of working in healthcare wasn’t for them. Our turnover became extremely high,” explains Shirley Koren, Alverno’s Associate Regional Director.
In response, Alverno generated a 12-week N.O.W. Career Accelerator program for students operating as full-time employees who wished to enter the laboratory science field quickly. (N.O.W. stands for: Need a career? Opportunity awaits With Alverno!) In addition to their solo-run, fast-track initiative, Alverno also developed a conventionally timed MLS program in partnership with Oak Point. Both programs are geared toward people who already have undergraduate degrees in chemistry, biology, or microbiology. “We believe in finding as many creative ways as possible to find techs to work in our labs. So far, we’ve identified candidates for both our fast-track and slow-track programs,” explains Martha Lampman, Regional Director at Alverno Clinical Laboratory.
A robust recruitment program, run by Alverno’s marketing team, relied heavily on social media to get the word out. “Our marketing is geared towards people whose goal may have been premed or PT, and they realize they want to change routes but end up with a degree and no career goal. What do you do with that degree? We provide a niche, and that’s who we’ve been marketing to,” explains Ms. Koren.
To eliminate obstacles for students, Alverno created a contractual relationship with Oak Point that included tuition coverage. Alverno also hires each student on a part-time basis and pays for their clinical hours. After graduation, students move into a full-time MLS position at Alverno. This fills empty slots and provides a loan-free career path for budding laboratory professionals. This program is currently in its sixth class, with eight students in this current cohort. A total of 50 students have gone through the program, including the current class.
When developing a new MLS program in partnership with another organization, having a structure in mind is important, but it’s also helpful to experiment and shift learning models as needed. “Alverno’s first attempt used a committee to develop self-directed learning modules. But self-guided learning is tough,” explains Ms. Lapman. “There was little to no interaction built in, and not enough back-and-forth between professionals and students.” This early endeavor found that some students were successful, but most only focused on the parts of the curriculum they liked. “Over time we formalized our approach to include lab math, which nobody really likes but every scientist needs to know. We learned that structure and interaction are key,” she adds.
It's also vitally important to have post-graduation laboratory slots readily available for students to fill. “First, make sure to line up your clinical partners. If you don’t have a place for your students to work, you’ll have a difficult time attracting candidates,” explains Dr. Bennett.
Of course, funding is also essential. “MLS training is resource intensive. We were thrilled when we got the ASCP grant last year. It helped immensely,” adds Dr. Bennett. The ASCP grant was used to buy equipment for the blood banking laboratory, including centrifuges, antibodies, and agglutination viewers.
Dr. Bennett explains that each hospital system UW-P works with has a representative serving as an advisor on UW-P’s advisory board. This is helpful for transitioning older hospital equipment to the school, which represents a cost savings for the university.
There are many ways to fill a need. As a strategy, creating MLS programs not only supports pathology and laboratory medicine, but it also staves off a potentially severe crisis in healthcare. The most important lesson to be learned from those who have already started to walk this path is, don’t do it alone. Look for like-minded partners who share your goal and can help you fulfill it. Then, get to work.
Kenosha, WI unemployment rate (I:KWIUR). (2023). https://ycharts.com/indicators/kenosha_wi_unemployment_rate#:~:text=Kenosha%2C%20WI%20Unemployment%20Rate%20is,long%20term%20average%20of%206.46%25.
Top 200 popular jobs in Wisconsin. (2022). https://www.usawage.com/popular/jobs-state-wisconsin.php
Patient Advocate and Freelance Writer