We’ve all been hearing about the shortage of SARS-CoV-2 testing kits and materials, but there’s another shortage in the labs that hasn’t been widely mentioned. A human must perform the testing, and like all the other healthcare providers, lab personnel have been working above and beyond during this COVID-19 pandemic. The necessary resourcing response of hospitals dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced drastic shifts in staff rotation and coverage. As reagents are made available, instruments that can be the platform for running SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid testing are being dedicated to thousands of samples. Yet, some of the lab workforce has been furloughed or asked to accept reduced pay, even with the increased workload, because hospitals are experiencing revenue loss as a result of deferring elective surgeries and outpatient chronic disease monitoring.
April 19-25, 2020 is Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (MLPW or simply Lab Week); let us recognize the critical role played by these unsung heroes in our labs. COVID-19 has highlighted the strain on the lab workforce and as two former “med techs,” we’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about the profession.
If you’ve had your blood drawn for medical purposes, your blood met a med tech. If you’ve had a blood transfusion, a med tech performed the crossmatch to assure compatibility. Urine drug screen tests are also run by med techs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 14 billion lab tests are done yearly—and that was before COVID-19. 70 percent of all medical decisions depend on lab tests. Hospitals have an ancillary healthcare team in the laboratory, and there are also “standalone” labs, many of which are well known, national names.
Who are the people who decided to enter this profession? They may be the science geeks you knew from high school, those who really like puzzles and love biology or chemistry but didn’t shoot for that PhD. Clinical laboratory scientists (aka medical technologists or “med techs”) are certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) or the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). A few states, such as New York, offer their own credentialing. Either a 2- or 4-year degree is required, including clinical rotations and didactic lectures in diseases of the blood and body fluids.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook, overall employment for med techs is projected to grow 11 percent in the next 8 years, faster than the 5 percent average outlook for many other occupations. About 40 percent of the lab workforce is expected to retire in the next 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply made obvious the need for the newer generations to enter this exciting, growing and fulfilling profession. The American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC) discussion boards are currently ablaze with med techs from around the world commenting on the new tests for COVID-19 antibody detection and the theory of immunization from past exposure. As much as 30 percent of colds are caused by a common coronavirus, but because the viral strains for the common cold change so much we don’t become immune, thus there is no point in developing a vaccine for the common cold. Additionally, having common coronavirus antibodies doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to the next cold. Fortunately, the 2019 novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t appear to mutate much, hence there is hope for a vaccine. The antibody detection for a COVID-19 survivor needs to be specific to SARS-CoV-2, and similarly, when testing potential vaccines, the antibody production must be specific to the vaccine material.
You can see that a med tech not only contributes to patient care, but contributes to the research advancing health care. During Lab Week, let’s show our appreciation for the lab professionals supporting the diagnostic effort in the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.