J. Eric Stanford, MHA, MLS(ASCP)CM

What does “Visibility of the Profession” mean to you? If you asked someone on the street what your role is as a laboratory scientist, would they be able to answer?

Across many laboratory scientists, in many labs throughout the country, the overwhelming answer to that is usually “no.” By our nature, we like quiet corners of the hospital where we can toil away, diligently following our SOPs, and checking boxes off a maintenance log. We don’t like visibility, while we lament the lack of visibility. When I’ve talked with others, it seems the expectation is that other people will advocate for our profession so that I don’t have to do it. This is the mentality that we need to change. Visibility starts with you.

So often, laboratorians bemoan the unequal treatment the laboratory receives compared to nursing. Why didn’t we get a cake during Lab Week, but nursing had a banner draped across the entrance of the hospital? The role
of the nurse is well known to the general public. They know how to make themselves visible, and like physicians, enjoy the advantage of being patient-facing as well. But they also take it upon themselves to elevate their profession to the public. We, as laboratorians, need to face a humbling lesson—visibility starts at the individual level. How do we find ways around the barriers we’ve largely created for ourselves? How do we get out there in front of the patient? How do we increase the visibility of our profession?

“To improve the visibility of the profession takes a team effort and may require you to step outside of your comfort zone. But the rewards can be astronomical!”

The first step must be to move out from behind the microscope and into the public eye. This means you. We can’t rely on “someone else” to do it for us. The easiest way to accomplish this is by being active in your laboratory organizations, at the local, state, and national levels. When more people are involved, more gets done and we become increasingly visible.

Are there committees in your hospital or institution that could use your expertise? Ask to join and I can assure you at least one person in the group will finally learn what happens in the lab. Contribute to online discussions and forums; be the expert who answers a random question on social media. These kinds of grassroots interactions are key to visibility.

Next, prepare your “elevator speech”—a 10-30 second synopsis of what you do as a laboratory scientist that you can use as a quick, but thorough, answer to the question, “What do you do?” or the dreaded, “Are you a nurse?” Try this: “I am a laboratory scientist with an educational background in many areas such as chemistry, hematology, and microbiology. People like me perform and interpret the laboratory testing your clinician ordered to aid in diagnosis and treatment of diseases, such as glucose and diabetes, or blood counts in leukemia. If you have a bacterial infection, we identify the specific organism and advise on the appropriate effective antibiotics.”

Alter the speech to fit your situation or conversation—it gives the listener a quick, succinct idea of what your work is and the role you play on the healthcare team. Too often we brush this question off with, “I’m just a lab rat,” or “I work in the lab,” without taking the time to educate. Imagine sitting at the dinner table over the holidays, hearing an aunt or uncle talking about a recent visit to their doctor. “They drew two liters of blood! Why do they need that much?” What an opportunity to talk about the reality of the lab, what it takes to perform testing, and help manage the perception of your relative. Maybe next time they will call you with questions or guidance that you may be able to provide.

Get involved in your local hospital and community. In a previous lab, we had a program where nursing gave me two hours out of the nursing orientation schedule to take new hire nurses through a tour of the laboratory. This was amazing—these were new grads and experienced new hires together. My colleagues and I would take them through every area of the laboratory and introduce them to “what happens when you send a sample down to the lab.”

Before entering the lab, I would ask one question: “When you think of the lab, what do you know?” The answer was always the same—a mixture of “I don’t know” or “the black box down in the basement.” After the tour, I would ask the same question and get vastly different answers. We covered everything from what hemolysis is and how it affects testing, why a sample is over-citrated, what caused the sample to be rejected, and more. Blood bank would cover proper identification protocols and crossmatching. These nurses certainly understood the vital role the laboratory plays in healthcare, and through this tour our prominence rose. Other departments asked to be included in the tours, and overall interaction with units improved. Imagine if we put this into practice in every hospital?

To improve the visibility of the profession takes a team effort and may require you to step outside of your comfort zone. But the rewards can be astronomical! Do you feel your pay is behind the curve? Are you not getting the focus from HR on the hiring you need? Get in front of the right people, talk about the lab, and share what you know to be the awesomeness of laboratory medicine. Get out there, speak up, get involved, and be the change we need as a profession. Visibility starts with you.

Eric Stanford is the diagnostic chemistry supervisor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center Diagnostic Laboratories in Nashville, Tennessee.