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Laboratory careers: mixed signals for the future.

Medical technology as a profession is suffering serious growing pains, and its practitioners are feeling widespread discontent over what some view as their stepchild status within the health care disciplines. More than 40 per cent of the respondents to MLO's latest panel survey plan to leave the field entirely. Uncertainty, shaded by pessimism, is the dominant attitutde toward the future.

Is this gloomy outlook a valid reflection of what laboratory careers are really like today? It is for s many panelists, who cite stagnating salaries, dwindling career opportunities and prestige, nonexistent mobility, and shrinking benefits and budgets as prime reasons for their discontent. Others, however, welcome what they perceive as an exciting period of growth and change for the lab. This optimism presumably motivates the 60 per cent of our panel who plan to hold onto their current jobs--at least for the next few years.

The survey revealed the development of several disconcerting trends. One is the move to cut back on professional perks such as tutition reimbursement and paid travel to professional meetings (Figure I). The good news is that most of our panelists' institutions still offer both tuition reimbursement and paid travel, and sponsor in-house management workshops.

Fully 92 per cent of all panelists reported that at least a few members of their staff were able to attend professional meetings and workshops with the hospital's financial backing. Larger laboratories are the most likely to support paid travel.

Tuition reimbursement is the next most common educational benefit; 81 per cent of the panel can count on their institutions for help to ease the cost of advanced degrees. Reimbursement is offered by 91 per cent of the hospitals with more than 300 beds, by 79 per cent of the smaller hospitals and by 71 per cent of the independent laboratories.

Respondents in laboratories subject to DRGs were somewhat more likely to receive educational aid than their non-DRG counterparts. Geographically, the East shows the most support for higher education; 90 per cent of these facilities offer assistance, compared with 83 per cent in the Midwest, 79 per cent in the West, and 75 per cent in the South.

We also asked the panel whether their institutions offered inhouse management workshops. About 69 per cent replied that these programs were given at least occasionally. Again, larger hospitals were most likely to offer these programs (86 per cent); two-thirds of the smaller hospitals and half of the independent labs did so.

The bad news for continuing education is that a growing minoity of institutions have begun canceling or severely restricting thse traditionally subsidized opportunities. Educational benefits have been discontinued completely in 13 per cent of the panelists' laboratories and restricted in 17 per cent. A number of panelists report that these perks, if available at all, are offered only to upper-level supervisors.

Paid travel has been ahrdest hit; it was ended or restricted in 81 per cent of the laboratories that experienced educational cuts. Tuition reimbursement was cut for 35 per cent of this group, and administrators have vetoed management workshops at 16 per cent.

Technologists recognize the value of continuing their education. Two-fifths of the panelists report that up to 10 per cent of their staff members are studying after hours. This situation isn't universal, though; in another 22 per cent of the surveyed labs, not one laboratorian is doing so.

Pat Weitzner, administrative lab director at Doctor's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., finds this troubling. "Education is very important both for the present and the future, and I insist that my staff members continue theirs," she said. "The lab is a dynamic field with a lot of opportunity for s those prepared to grow with it."

Half of Weitzner's staff members are currentlsy taking her advice. Phlebotomists are encouraged to go for national certification or pursue technician training. Some of the technicians are studying for a bachelor's degree, while the technologists have gone on to graduate school or are working toward advanced certification.

Education is a high priority for most panelists. More than 80 per cent hold a bachelor's degree, and 40 per cent have a master's degree as well. Additionally, 87 per cent of all those surveyed have taken management courses, and two-thirds--particularly those in large labs subject to DRGs--plan to take them within the next year.

Despite all the attention focused on the bottom line, more panelists are interested in studying personnel management (26 per cent) than financial management (16 per cent). Computer courses rank third, mentioned by 15 per cent. Eleven per cent of the panelists plan to study laboratory management, with 10 per cent taking courses that will lead to an MBA Figure II shows a breakdown of the panel's management training priorities.

Laboratorians' educational achievements seem sadly undervalued by administrators and colleagues in some institutions. "It seems the longer I work, the less respect I get for my education and training," a group practice lab supervisor commented. "We're treated as if we were pulled off the street and trained yesterday. The doctors call us 'technicians,' the nurses call us 'lab girls,' and the general public calls us 'nurse.'" Many others, however, predict that graduate-level coursework will soon be a prerequisite for a move into management.

Some panelists' educational plans will lead them far afield from the laboratory. One respondent with an MBA will pursue certification as an architect; others are headed for medical or law school. Real estate or sales careers have appealed to more than a few laboratorians, as have basic electronic engineering, data processing, and computer specialties.

The lack of career mobility is a major grievance for medical technologists, but it hasn't prevented many from making frequent job changes. On average, 43 per cent of the staff members in surveyed laboratories have been in the same lab for less than five years. Only 27 per cent have spent a decade with the same employer.

Many labs we contacted will be holding some unexpected going-away parties. Some panelists reported that after 6, 10, or 20 years in the same workplace, it was time to move on to other challenges and better salaries. "I've been a supervisor and manager for 10 years," said an Albany panelist who is completing his MBA, "and an annual salary of $24,000 is just not making it."

Some respondents are already looking forward to retirement years ahead of schedule. A few expressed real bitterness toward their work lives, like the Michigan microbiologist who commented, "Hospitals are getting worse, not better, to work in. The pursuit of the almighty dollar is driving people out of the lab." An assistant lab director in upstate New York said, "I hope to retire within the next five years. After that, I'll sell cars or cut bait--anything but stay in this overregulated, overstressed, underpaid, and unappreciated profession."

So far, laboratorians are more likely to switch labs than careers. We asked the panel to name a reason for the resignation of any of their colleagues in the last two years. Sixty-six per cent said that technologists had left to work in another clinical lab; 44 per cent knew firsthand of others who had left the field completely. Sixteen per cent of the panel lost staff members to diagnostic manufacturers, and 15 per cent reported that former coworkers were hired by nonclinical labs (Figure III).

Of course, most of these technologists left their jobs for various personal reasons. Some relocated when spouses were transferred, and others put their lab careers on hold for full-time parenthood. A handful retired, and a few left to become full-time students.

As for their own professional futures, the panelists--many of them already managers--generally plan to hange on and see what happens (Figure IV). Just under 60 per cent expect to hold the same position three years from now; two-thirds plan to continue working at the same hospital. Many qualify that if promised promotions don't materialize, they won't hesitate to move on.

Some respondents are truly happy with both their jobs and their laboratories. They enjoy their work, respect the institution, and believe that their efforts are appreciated. An assistant lab supervisor from Illinois commented that he still finds his position challenging, gets along with his supervisors, and doesn't plan to make any changes unless he should happen to win the state lottery.

Not everyone, of course, is this contented. Job dissatisfaction is running high in many labs, and a Pennsylvania supervisor said she's getting tired of her administrators' "just be happy you have a job" attitude. Several respondents have already given notice or s expect to leave the lab--and even the profession--in the very near future. Consulting and sales beckon. A Kansas City lab director plans a career switch to psychotherapy, and a chief technologist fro Georgia expects to go back into nursing.

In many cases, it is the financial future of the hospital that causes concern. And some panelists have simply outgrown their current labs. "There is a limit to what I can accomplish at a 250-bed rural hospital," explained a Pennsylvania microbiology supervisor. "I feel I've reached that limit, and that moving on is just a matter of time."

Given all these pros and cons, would the panel recommend a laboratory career to newcomers? Sentiments are deeply divided, as Figure V shows. Under today's pressures, it may be a sign of faith that 46 per cent said yes. Of this group, 20 per cent made that a "yes" with reservations, while 27 per cent commented that they found their careers satisfying, rewarding, and respected, and 19 per cent pointed out that the clinical lab remains an exciting field with fast-breaking developments.

The fact remains that a majority of the panel would counsel young people to look elsewhere for a career. Why? Jobs are tight, according to 42 per cent of the panelists; the pay leaves much to be desired, said 32 per cent. Limited or no room for advancement was a factor for 28 per cent of these laboratory veterans.

Other negatives mentioned were high stress, monotony, the disparity between education and on-the-job responsibility, and a lack of prestige. A sampling of these comments, both positive and negative, is shown in Figures VI and VII.

Panelists from all over the country mention a technologist glut and a dearth of entry-level positions--although, as we saw in Part I of this report, others have had difficulty filling technician-level vacancies with qualified personnel.

An operations manager in Dayton reported that less than half of last year's graduating MTs were able to find a laboratory job, and a chief technologist at a small New Hampshire hospital said that he receives 50 to 100 applications a year, even though there hasn't been an opening in more than two years.

Those who do break into the lab may find that there is little room for advancement. Several respondents--mostly men--believe that medical technology is an ideal field for women who divide their priorities between home and career. However, a Minnesota lab supervisor points out that women with good grades and an interest in science are now bypassing the laboratory for the previously male-dominated arena of medical school.

Panelists overwhelmingly agree that it's time for a major overhaul of medical technology programs, and they have plenty of ideas about how to accomplish it. The field is changing direction, they contend, and medical technology programs must do likewise to prepare students realistically for the future.

Using works like antiquated and archaic, many respondents stress that educational programs have simply failed to keep pace. "They continue to teach outdated technologies that bear little resemblance to today's practice, and offer little or no chance to develop administrative skills," charged an Indianopolis administrator.

Medical technologist training, the panelists say, is an excellent background for fields such as health care administration, medical sales, and research. But future technologists must be open-minded and willing to diversify if they are to advance beyond the bench.

If routine lab work, as opposed to upward advancement, is the student's goal, panelists have no objection to a two-year MLT program. They recommend that more ambitious laboratorians complete a bachelor's degree, follow up with a business-oriented master's degree, build up a base of solid laboratory experience, and then plan to move upo and possibly out within 10 years.

"Although the profession has been somewhat ignored in past years, there is no reason why a bright, aggressive person with the right educational and professional background can't do well both financially and professionally," said an Idaho lab manager. A Nebraska supervisor noted that there will always be opportunities for a motivated technologist: "Patients will always need alb work; it's just that testing may move out of the hospital."

So, while medical technology will undoubtedly change a great deal in the next few years, the profession isn't ready for the endangered species list. True, laboratorians have had little or no control over the forces redesigning their profession--for some, a career chosen many years ago. But those who thrive on challenge and don't mind changing with the times can still participate in the evolution of what is essentially a brand new health care system.

As a Massachusetts panelist noted, "Medical technology has a multitude of rewards and some drawbacks, but it is primarily what the individual makes of it." Those words ring true as an entire profession waits to see what the future holds.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:part 2
Author:Hallam, Kris
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Aug 1, 1985
Previous Article:Laboratory careers: still chances for the brass ring?
Next Article:Meeting the challenge of bedside testing; technology will continue to push patient testing beyond the bounds of the laboratory.

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