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Larry Birnbaum: Medical lab workers in high demand

One of the best jobs in the United States is also one of the best-kept secrets. The "1999 Jobs Rated Almanac," a survey rating 250 jobs on salaries, stress, work environment, security, etc., gave this job the number 16 position. These highly paid...

One of the best jobs in the United States is also one of the best-kept secrets. The "1999 Jobs Rated Almanac," a survey rating 250 jobs on salaries, stress, work environment, security, etc., gave this job the number 16 position. These highly paid professionals are currently receiving sign-on bonuses ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, because they are in such demand.
Unfortunately, a significant part of the shortage is simply a lack of awareness about the profession.
What is this attractive yet overlooked career option? It is the clinical laboratory scientist (CLS).
It is the CLS who is responsible for providing accurate lab test results. These tests -- such as strep screens, urinalysis, blood cell counts, blood sugar (glucose) levels, drug screens and bacterial cultures -- are used by physicians to detect, diagnose, treat and study disease.
The test results help to guide the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, anemia, diabetes, heart attack, liver, kidney and bone disease and more. For example, a lab test can determine the antibiotic and dosage needed to treat certain bacterial infections. Lab data is also used to de-fine populations, such as dis-eases afflicting the elderly.
The full potential of lab data has yet to be realized.
The demand for laboratory testing continues to rise, in spite of the mergers and downsizing that have adversely affected employment in the past decade. The increase not only reflects the rising number of some lab tests, but also the growing number of new tests required through technological advancements and the discovery of new disease markers.
Unfortunately, the job market has seen fewer CLS graduates in past years because the number of applicants to programs and the number of programs have declined. CLS programs decreased from 356 to 277 between 1996 and 1999, according to the National Accrediting Agency for CLS. A variety of career options has also contributed to the shortage as a growing number of clinical laboratory scientists secure employment in areas other than the traditional clinical laboratory.
Minnesota has 6,000 to 8,000 laboratory professionals, 45 percent of whom are clinical laboratory scientists, reports Karen Karni, director of the medical technology program at the University of Minnesota. Nevertheless, only 39 clinical laboratory scientists and 59 clinical laboratory technicians are expected to graduate in Minnesota this year.
At any given time the Mayo Clinic has openings for 40 clinical laboratory scientists, says Kathy Hansen, director of laboratory operations at Fairview-University Medical Center. Many openings also exist in the metro area.
While the shortage has not severely affected the Duluth area, several CLS are expected to retire over the next few years. If the current trend continues, finding qualified laboratorians will be a major problem.
The College of St. Scholastica offers the only Clinical Laboratory Science program in the area, one of only three CLS programs in the state. Lake Superior College offers a Clinical Laboratory Technician (CLT) program, one of nine in Minnesota. (The difference between a CLS and a CLT is simple. A clinical laboratory scientist has earned a bachelor's degree in CLS, whereas a clinical laboratory technician has earned an associate degree. A CLT performs much of the routine, highly automated lab testing. A CLS performs more esoteric lab tests, along with the routine testing, and typically performs managerial tasks.)
A clinical laboratory scientist may also pursue career options such as medical or graduate school, sales, information technology, consultation, administration, education and several laboratory specialties.
Anyone interested in a career in laboratory medicine should take courses in biology, chemistry, math and general education. Good written and oral communication skills are also essential.
For more information on clinical laboratory science, contact me at (218) 723-6621, or JoAnn Wallgren at Lake Superior College, (218) 733-7679.
Larry Birnbaum is chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science Department at the College of St. Scholastica and is an associate professor of CLS.

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