Volume 36 Number 5 | October 2022

Kim Von Ahsen, MHA, MLS(ASCP)CM, SLS(ASCP)CM, ASCLS President

Kim Von AhsenDo you remember the first time you fought for a cause, the first time you learned about advocacy? My mother sure does! She can tell you how she discovered that her 16-year-old daughter took permanent marker to all the tuna cans in the house, writing in big letters, “SAVE THE DOLPHINS.”

At 16, I really didn’t understand that what I was doing was advocacy. All I knew was that I cared deeply about animals, and they were not able to fight for themselves. Did my action make a difference? On a small scale it did; my mother agreed to participate in the tuna boycott in 1986, and I learned that it was important to speak up. However, as a teen, my understanding of advocacy was limited to the concept of activism that I experienced as a GenXer influenced by the music industry—Live Aid, Rock the Vote, and Pearl Jam on Unplugged.

My understanding of advocacy was expanded when I started my career in the laboratory; although, it didn’t happen on day one. The first few years in the lab, I was too focused on learning the job that I hadn’t begun to see the role that participating in advocacy had with being a professional. It wasn’t until I became involved in ASCLS that I learned about the different strategies of advocacy. Throughout my career, I’ve participated in self-advocacy, individual advocacy, and systems advocacy.

Self-advocacy is advocacy of speaking up for oneself based upon your needs. This can be speaking to your leadership about an inefficient test process and suggesting improvements; creating open communication with peers that ensures a safe space to speak up when workloads are unbalanced and to ask for assistance; and setting boundaries on work hours and time off to ensure a healthy work/life balance.

Individual advocacy is when you speak for or are an ally to another individual. This is fundamental in our profession when we ensure that patients receive the best care through accurate testing. Asking for a new sample to be collected that has a questionable result, calling a provider or care giver to clarify an order, or following up on a service concern a patient identifies—these are all examples of individual advocacy.

Systems advocacy is when individuals with similar interests or issues come together to change polices, laws, or rules that impact one’s life on the local, state, or federal level. For most laboratory professionals, this is advocacy that most often occurs as one becomes involved in a professional organization or other advocacy organizations. While a single individual can call or email a government agency or representative about a specific change desired, the most effective change occurs when individuals form a group that advances their goals and elevates their collective voice.

The idea of advocacy can be intimidating because systems advocacy is what is often viewed as the only way to be an advocate. In reality, when we begin to see the other strategies of advocacy, every laboratory professional advocates in powerful ways during their career. That advocacy may be as big and organized as systems advocacy, as personal as self-advocacy, and as impactful as individual advocacy. And sometimes that advocacy starts with a permanent marker and a tuna can.

Kim Von Ahsen is the Laboratory Quality and Safety Specialist at UnityPoint – Health Des Moines, Iowa Methodist Medical Center, in Des Moines, Iowa.