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Avengers of the Laboratory


By Heather Hurley, Executive Director, Laboratory Accreditation Program

Looking back at the enormous challenges facing the laboratory community last year, it’s no wonder that the American Society for Clinical Pathology dubbed the theme of this year’s Medical Laboratory Professionals Week as “Avengers of the Laboratory.”

It’s utterly amazing that our industry overcame COVID-19 issues that seemed insurmountable a year ago such as:

  • testing limitations
  • inconsistencies with waived testing designation
  • false test results
  • shortages of almost every supply from reagents to collection kits

In 12 months, the laboratory community more than rose to the occasion as far as testing.

Last year’s Lab Week blog post found a pandemic silver lining in that COVID-19 would provide medical laboratory technicians with the recognition they’ve long deserved. While there’s certainly been some positive publicity, like this segment on Good Morning America last winter, most laboratorians are still working in the “shadows” of health care. 

Nurses and doctors may be top of mind when one hears the term “health care heroes” but it’s the medical laboratory technicians who:

  • handle tubes
  • evaluate protocols
  • operate and repair machines that were never designed to run 24/7

The Human Toll
The supply and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages have resolved over the course of the year, but the pandemic is still wearing on laboratory workers. Charged with processing thousands of COVID-19 tests on top of their regular workload, many medical laboratory technicians are working 15+ hour days and developing secondary conditions, like carpel tunnel syndrome.

Frankly, burnout and low staffing levels have been a problem for laboratory professionals well before COVID-19 hit. Retiring baby boomers, funding cuts for public health laboratories and pay rates that are less competitive with other health care careers is the perfect storm for an exhausted workforce.

The Joint Commission has released a Quick Safety advisory on promoting the psychological wellbeing of staff during the pandemic as well as statements removing barriers for health care workers to seek mental health care. I know it’s only a start but hope the laboratory community found these useful.

This week is all about YOU. The demands of the laboratory are still intense but let’s take a moment to acknowledge the enormity of our contribution to resolving this public health crisis. Medical laboratory technologists, you truly are superhuman!

Heather Hurley is executive director of laboratory accreditation at The Joint Commission. Prior to this role, she worked for The Cleveland Clinic in a research capacity and for several major biotechnology companies.