Medical Lab Professionals Week - Expert Interview & Advocacy Guide
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“Our patients are at the heart of everything we do. We’re not just talking about the patient; we’re engaging with the patient in very meaningful and unique ways.”
Amy Spiczka, Executive Director of the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification
America’s healthcare system can’t function without its medical laboratory professionals. Across different specialties, laboratory professionals analyze specimens to supply patients and providers with the information they need for the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and management of health and disease. Their work is absolutely essential: approximately 70 percent of today’s medical decisions depend on laboratory test results (CDC).
Forget the antiquated image of an isolated figure in a laboratory. The laboratory professional workforce is a collaborative and patient-focused profession advancing as quickly as the science and technology underpinning it. The current and next generations of medical laboratory professionals will play a crucial role in shaping healthcare delivery, taking their positions alongside healthcare professionals and advanced practice providers as a critical segment of the collaborative and patient-centered healthcare workforce.
This year’s Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (Lab Week) runs from April 23-29, 2023. It’s an annual celebration of the medical laboratory professionals and pathologists who play a vital role in healthcare and patient advocacy. It’s also an opportunity to reflect upon the many changes to the field over the years and to look ahead at what’s next. To learn more, read on.
Meet the Expert: Amy Spiczka, MS, HTL(ASCP)CMSCT, MBCM, CPHQ
Amy Spiczka currently serves as the executive director of the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC). The ASCP BOC has credentialed over 625,000 laboratory professionals worldwide. Spiczka is a patient-centric advocate for the laboratory professional workforce, as the ASCP BOC collaboratively provides examinations and credentials across the entirety of the laboratory-specific healthcare continuum.
Spiczka’s clinical practice, published research, education interests, and awards focus primarily on elevating patients’ experiences with continuous quality improvement; developing and integrating innovative laboratory techniques; and advancing professional development opportunities, visibility, and recognition for laboratory team members.
The Viability and Evolution of Medical Laboratory Professionals
“Historically, the contribution of medical laboratory professionals has been hugely significant,” Spiczka says. “The majority of electronic healthcare record (EHR) documentation comes from the laboratory [and is detailed in] a patient’s healthcare chart. Without a result, without a diagnosis from the laboratory, there really is no care plan for patients.”
Broadly speaking, medical laboratory professionals perform complex tests on patient samples using sophisticated platforms. Within the profession lies a huge range of education, training, and specialization. Today’s medical laboratory professionals don’t necessarily spend their entire careers in a single discipline, either. Many pursue advanced knowledge and skill-based training as further diversification of experience, aligned with improved professional outcomes.
“The role of the modern laboratory professional, for the long course of the profession, has been to care for patients across the healthcare continuum,” Spiczka says. “That hasn’t changed, yet the healthcare continuum has expanded, especially in recent years. What providers and patients expect of us has become more diversified and more specialized.”
Patient-Centered Laboratory Services
The evolution of the medical laboratory professional can be seen as an extension of healthcare’s shift toward a more patient-centered model of care. Medical laboratory professionals have always interacted with or on behalf of patients, but those interactions are becoming more involved and less transactional.
In some cases, the laboratory professional is taking the lead on optimizing laboratory-based workflows that optimize the patient experience or developing effective test utilization schemas. Other laboratory professionals interact with patients daily, combining scientific acumen with social and emotional intelligence.
“Our patients are at the heart of everything we do,” Spiczka says. “We’re not just talking about the patient; we’re engaging with the patient in very meaningful and unique ways.”
The role of the medical laboratory profession is heavily intertwined with continuous quality improvement, as well as information and technology: laboratories generate and collect massive amounts of data. Medical laboratory professionals can be stewards of that data and advocate for its ethical use. That data could be used in innovative areas related to AI and digital pathology; it’s also powering a new era of data-driven decision-making in the laboratory.
“Our laboratories have become leaner in their operations and their processes because they have real-time data that offers insights to make optimized decisions,” Spiczka says. “It’s incredibly powerful.”
A Unified Voice for Medical Lab Professionals
A persistent and problematic issue for medical laboratory professionals relates to visibility. The unification of nomenclature is one solution to a multi-faceted opportunity. While the profession’s strength lies in its unified diversity—comprising, as it does, so many different specialties—that diversity has led to some fracturing in titles.
Spiczka points to the Covid-19 pandemic as an inflection point. The average American suddenly knew what a PCR test was. In turn, the laboratory itself gained visibility. People started to appreciate that there was an entire team supporting clinicians and patient care. But opportunities remain to clarify the value and composition of the laboratory team.
“We’ve been called everything: techs, technologists, technicians, scientists, biomedical scientists,” Spiczka says. “If we aren’t unified in our nomenclature, who will know us? Who will recognize us not only for our value as a team but as leaders in the dialogue of this specialty?”
One of the first steps toward unification is the unification of the Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS) credential. This brought together the Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS) and the Medical Technologist (MT) under a single term. The ASCP introduced the “I am MLS” campaign in September 2022 to support further adoption; it’s received strong support so far. The laboratory professional workforce is now looking at how it can move beyond the MLS credential, and gain further visibility.
“This is about the beginning of a journey,” Spiczka says. “If we’re not seen, if we’re not heard, and if we’re not appreciated, then we aren’t going to get far with other advocacy insights.”
The Future for Medical Lab Professionals
As their role evolves, medical laboratory professionals will take on an increasing number of leadership positions, both in the laboratory and healthcare more broadly. They’ll continue to practice deepened collaboration with clinicians and other allied health professions. And they’ll use their unified voice to advocate for patient-centered practices.
“What unites us is our service to patients,” Spiczka says.
Advocating for the patient means advocating for access. Many developing and rural areas need more reliable access to laboratories and other healthcare services. The ASCP is looking for ways to help expand equity, access, and inclusion while widening the funnel for those considering a career in the laboratory: increasing the workforce’s diversity of thought and experience could lead to greater health equity.
A bold and global future exists, wherein diverse, value-based, and portable credentials support a greater flow of knowledge and skills to the patients who need it most.
“The future can’t hold barriers, whether it’s barriers to access, barriers to knowledge or visibility, or barriers to a career in the laboratory,” Spiczka says. “We are realizing a bright and meaningful future.”