The State of Laboratory Professional Education Programs

By Jordan Rosenfeld - January 31, 2023


The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse for laboratory professionals and the programs that educate them. The sheer demand for laboratory professionals skyrocketed in 2020 and beyond as testing protocols became one of the first lines of defense against the virus, and put laboratory careers in the forefront of healthcare, possibly for the first time ever. However, it also revealed a severe shortage in the workforce, worsened by an exodus as overworked laboratory professionals have left the field. This has put pressure on universities to expand their Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) Education programs. 

“I think we’re starting to see more programs opening because labs have reached their breaking point with the workforce shortage,” says Amanda Reed, MAE, MLS(ASCP)CM Medical Laboratory Science Program Director, Education Coordinator, and Assistant Professor in the Clinical Health Sciences Department at St. Louis University, Missouri. “Hospital and laboratory administration are responding to their laboratory staff when they say that they are working at capacity, and they need help. Hospitals and labs are reaching out to and teaming up with MLS programs to come up with creative solutions to fill the need.” 

As a field, it should be an attractive one to younger people, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty, says Cheryl Germain, MHS, MASCP, PA(ASCP), Program Director, Pathologists’ Assistant Program at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, California. “You don’t have to worry about moving across the country or where you want to go; you will always have a job.”  

Ms. Germain says that many universities are attempting to meet the demands of developing new laboratory professionals by opening new programs or taking innovative approaches to existing MLS programs in how they teach.  

Hybrid programs make headway  

St. Louis University (SLU) is one program with a hybrid approach, Ms. Reed explains, allowing students to take their didactic, lecture-based courses online in one year, rather than two. “We’re working with Orbis Education to develop simulations, animations, practice learning objects, and other modules,” Ms. Reed says. The goal is to make online learning active and engaging instead of passive by staying away from pre-recorded lectures.   

Additionally, Orbis is helping SLU build laboratory experiences across the country that allow the students to get hands-on experiences in two types of laboratory experiences—student labs and clinical rotations. “Orbis is helping us to establish clinical rotations at locations near where the students are currently living so they don’t have to relocate for their clinical experiences,” Ms. Reed says.  The goal is to make the program more accessible. 

Another factor that makes SLU’s program unique, says Ms. Reed, is that “We guarantee that we will be able to place them in a clinical rotation in either a hospital or reference lab setting.” 

New Pathologists’ Assistant program meets a need  

One new program that’s off to a successful start is a pathologists’ assistant program at the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center (UTHSC). Program Director Michael Weitzeil, MHS, PA(ASCP)CM, is helping get this new program underway. “There is a need in the mid-South for certified pathologists’ assistants and the University saw an opportunity to fill a geographical niche and a professional need.” 

Pathologists’ assistants obtain a level of medical training that is respective to that of physicians’ assistants, Mr. Weitzeil says. “These professionals do important work such as running the gross room, dissecting surgical tissue, grossly identifying the extent of cancer and other diseases, completing autopsies and more. As the shortage of pathologists continues and their workload increases, pathologists’ assistants become ever more valuable, he adds. “It’s extraordinarily important work, and pathologists’ assistants play an important role in the surgical and autopsy pathology laboratories.” 

UTHSC’s program’s first cohort of six students began in January 2023, and they plan to accept an additional two students each year until they reach 12, at which point they’ll re-evaluate. Working on a trimester system, students will obtain 76 credit hours. Their first year will be primarily didactic with supplemented laboratory learning experiences and their second year will be clinical rotations in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga. For the first cohort, there will be six clinical rotations: one forensic pathology, one pediatric pathology, and four surgical pathology rotations, each lasting about eight weeks. The students will rotate through each one over the course of a year. 

One benefit of the smaller program is a strong faculty-to-student ratio, offering more hands-on interaction. “Our goal is to create a quality program,” Mr. Weitzeil says. “We want it to be a very student-directed educational experience, emphasizing critical thinking and the highest quality patient care.” 

Another strength of the program is its excellent forensic autopsy clinical experience for the students. “Our students will receive excellent exposure to forensic autopsy,” Mr. Weitzeil says. He even suggests that, following slight trends in the field, there is potential to add a forensic-specific track that will gear clinical experience towards working in the forensic setting. “That would be unique amongst pathologists’ assistant training programs,” he says. 

The program is seeking NAACLS accreditation (National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science), which is an important step. “We fully intend to have serious applicant status by the time our first cohort graduates so they can sit for the ASCP Board of Certification exam. 

MLT to MLS Bridge programs take a step on career ladders  

Another program, at St. Cloud University in Minnesota, offers a bridge for medical laboratory technicians (MLT) students to become MLS certified in a kind of “career ladder program” according to Patricia Ellinger, MSEd, MLS(ASCP)CMSBBCM, Associate Professor in the Medical Laboratory Sciences department. She describes it as being similar to what nurses go through from an LPN degree to a Bachelor’s degree nursing program. 

“The students in this program are all working MLTs. They understand the profession, and how beneficial a Bachelor’s degree would be for them. We help them get the rest of their general education courses and provide the lecture courses that they need in the major areas of the laboratory, such as blood bank chemistry, hematology, microbiology, urinalysis, etc.” After the students complete those courses, they’re ready for clinical rotations. 

At St. Cloud, they’ve made some unique accommodations for students, including individualizing clinical rotations for each student. “Let’s say a student is working as an MLT much of the time in hematology and chemistry, they may only have to do a week in each of those areas, learning how to do some of the more advanced procedures they may not have been doing as MLTs,” Ms. Ellinger says. 

Another innovation Ms. Ellinger is seeing in programs is setting up tracks where a student can go through only one of the major areas, such as hematology, chemistry, blood bank, etc, and get certified. These certifications can help them in their current workplaces. 

The only downside is that training MLTs to become an MLS does drain the MLT workforce. 

Clinical placement, recruitment and retention 

While programs are expanding, one challenge cropping up is finding enough clinical sites for students. While some programs work out great collaborations with local hospitals and laboratory facilities, others struggle, which has led to a trend in shortening clinical rotation lengths, which can be a mixed bag. “Anything to decrease the burden on the clinical site so that they can continue to take our students,” Ms. Reed says. “Most sites that take students don’t get paid; they do it for free. And it’s hard for the employees to do their daily jobs and have a student with them at the bench.” 

Ms. Ellinger believes that as long as there is strong communication between schools and clinical sites, these problems can get ironed out. 

Additionally, while recruitment hasn’t been a problem for any of these programs, Ms. Germain thinks that it is still important to find new ways to let younger people know of MLS careers. “It’s great to be able to recruit from a high school, community college, or a university,” she says. 

She credits ASCP with its efforts to broaden knowledge of the profession. “They do a great job.” She adds, “We need to do things to engage the students at an early age and let them know about all the professions within the field of medical laboratory science.” 


Jordan Rosenfeld

Contributing Writer