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Plenty of Room at the Lab Table

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL -- They call themselves the detectives of the medical world.

And they're in short supply.

Medical laboratory clinicians -- the trained professionals who analyze your blood, diagnose what's wrong, and recommend a treatment -- are leaving the profession faster than students are graduating to fill the spots. Currently, vacancy rates in laboratories around the country run between 10 and 20 percent. In the Northeast, the rate hovers around 15 percent.

That in itself does not make for a critical shortage. But when the number of graduates from clinical programs is dropping, and the vacancies in labs are increasing, professionals see a serious problem on the horizon.

"It's not at a crisis point, but it's going in that direction," said Dr. Kay Doyle, coordinator of the medical technology and clinical sciences program at UMass Lowell's College of Health Professions.

As part of an effort to raise awareness about the profession, Mayor Rita Mercier declared this week Medical Laboratory Week at a small ceremony.

"We want qualified people to be in there ... and we're having a shortage of people like this," Mercier said.

A typical medical laboratory worker's responsibilities include running tests on samples, determining what's wrong and what medications to use. About 80 percent of a physician's cases involve some amount of lab work.

"They are the detectives in the health-care system. They go looking for the cues and clues that show what the problem is," said Dr. Janice M. Stecchi, dean of UMass Lowell's College of Health Professions. "It's an exciting career."

The predictions of a world without adequate numbers of medical technicians are dire: incorrect diagnoses and treatment, overwhelmed hospitals, and inadequate patient care. In an era of bioterrorism, the fears grow even stronger.

When pieces of mail tainted with anthrax began showing up last year, state laboratories were overwhelmed by possible tainted powders. If such a case of bioterrorism were to sweep the country, it would be impossible for the medical labs to keep pace.

"Then, the public health laboratories were getting inundated with samples. If it turned out there was a big exposure, it could be a crisis," Doyle said.

Lowell General Hospital suffered from a small crisis a few years ago when several medical technicians retired around the same time. Hospital staff had to cover shifts and work overtime hours to make up for the loss. Some of the vacancies simply could not be filled.

"Not only had we lost experienced professionals, but we were now suffering from vacancy rates the rest of the country was only beginning to realize," said Sharon Brommer, director of diagnostic services at Lowell General Hospital.

The hospital eventually found the people to fill the positions, and now is working with a nearly full staff.

Yet that may not be the case several years from now. About 3,000 students are graduating from clinical sciences programs every year, while 9,000 will be needed to fill empty spots.

"People just don't seem to be aware of the field," Doyle said. "Everybody's really trying very hard to make people aware before there's a crisis."