Five Reasons You Should Hug a Laboratorian

This week is National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week and National Environmental Laboratory Professionals Week.  APHL is honoring the many individuals working public health and environmental laboratories around the world.  Stay tuned for blog posts this week featuring the work of many of those unsung heroes working to protect the public’s health.

By Kara MacKeil, Senior Technician, Public Health Preparedness and Response Program, APHL

Did you know it is National Medical Laboratory Professional’s Week?  Sounds very official and impressive, but what exactly does this mean and why should you care?  What do the 300,000 medical laboratorians do to impact your life?  Why should YOU hug a medical laboratorian?  Let’s find out!

So what is a medical laboratory and how are they different from public health laboratories?  While most public health laboratories do perform clinical tests, they’re chiefly concerned with public health as a whole rather than the diagnosis and treatment of an individual.  Medical laboratories focus on the individual, but they still have a role to play in public health as they report certain critical findings to state and federal health authorities.  Many are also members of the Laboratory Response Network, a network of labs that respond to public health emergencies. But overall public health isn’t the primary focus of medical laboratories, as they exist mainly to assist clinicians in making diagnosis’s for specific patients.

2004Jim GathanyThis image depicts a trained phlebotomist, i.e., a technician skilled in the practice of drawing blood from a patient, correctly marking a Vacutainer® tube that will be used to extract a blood sample from the antecubital vein located at the anterior elbow region of a patient’s arm. This image is the second in a series of 19 images outlining the steps involved in extracting blood during the venipuncture process.The protocols that must be followed during the venipuncture procedure, help to maintain a sterile, well organized environment during each of the steps involved in drawing a patient’s blood for purposes of analysis. There is a negative internal pressure inside each Vacutainer® tube, which acts to suck the patient’s blood into the tube from a properly placed venipuncture site. It must be properly labeled in order to maintain a well organized laboratory, and clinical environment.

Before moving to the DC area, I worked in a medium-sized doctor’s office in Vermont. We were lucky enough to have a small in-house medical lab staffed with dedicated laboratorians to take care of the frequently requested tests. Those laboratorians were a big part of patient care and the clinicians consulted with them several times a day.

To paraphrase the campaign, Laboratory Professionals Get Results.  Your doctor made their best guess.  But it’s a medical laboratorian that can tell the difference between bacterial vaginosis and venerial diseaseor say “I’m sorry, but it’s definitely giardia.”  The news they bear is vital to accurate treatment.  So with this in mind, here are five reasons you should hug a medical laboratorian:

1 – Laboratory work helps doctors fine-tune.  Before moving to the DC area, I worked in a medium-sized doctor’s office in Vermont. We were lucky enough to have a small in-house lab staffed with dedicated laboratorians to take care of the frequently requested tests.  I still carry the vivid memory of a certain patient’s lipid test that was so bad, the shocked lab technician marched the blood tube over herself to show the patient’s doctor. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the patient’s cholesterol was so high that after the blood had been centrifuged the normally yellowish-clear plasma was milky. This is not what you want your blood to look like! Thanks to the lab test, the patient’s doctor knew exactly how bad things were and could devise a much more effective treatment plan. Cholesterol isn’t the only thing that medical laboratorians can help monitor.  Standard blood panels often include tests that screen for diabetes and thyroid disease, monitor your kidney and liver functions, and check the levels of essentials like vitamin D.

2 – They can save you from unnecessary shots.  It’s easy to remember which ankle you broke, or how often you get migraines, but do you remember how many hepatitis-B vaccinations you’ve received? What about your kids? Schools and employers need to know, and if you’re new to the country so does the government.  Imagine, if you will, a patient with no vaccination records who knows they’ve had some shots but has no idea what they were.  Maybe they moved, maybe the records are lost, or possibly they’re a refugee from another country.  Sadly, this was a frequent situation in the office where I worked, but how do you address it? There is the option of redoing the schedule, but even after eliminating the childhood diseases that adults generally don’t need protection from, this would take at least a year. Who can save the day?  That’s right, medical laboratorians!  With a small blood sample a medical laboratorian can test a patient for immunity to almost any disease you’d care to know about, thereby laying out in clinical detail what shots that patient does and doesn’t need.  This saves money for both patient and doctor, and prevents patients from getting unneeded injections.

3 –   They can be the deciding voice in diagnosis. Think about the reasons for your last trip to the doctor’s office.   Maybe you were having some sudden “digestive distress.” Maybe you were worried about a strange rash, or perhaps you wanted to know if that sore throat was actually strep.  For all of these complaints and many more, your doctor probably took a look, made a preliminary diagnosis, and sent it to a laboratory for analysis.  There are quite a few medical symptoms that can be caused by very different illnesses, and often the true cause (and correct treatment) can only be determined by the lab.  For example: it’s not uncommon for certain types of allergic skin reactions to appear very similar to certain fungal infections, but the treatment that will clear the allergic rash actually feeds that fungus and makes it grow (gross).  Lab tests can determine which is which without a trial-and-error treatment.

4 – They protect babies!  Even though we’ve known about the dangers of lead poisoning for years, lead contamination is still a very real problem that is especially dangerous for babies and young children.  Old homes that still have their original lead-based paint and contaminated toys or food can lead to dangerously high lead levels in infants.  Luckily, most states have routine testing programs to monitor infant lead levels.  At the office where I worked, almost every baby on the patient rolls received lead testing at regularly scheduled points in their development.  We’d gather a tiny sample during a regular office visit and send it off to the state public health laboratory for testing.  While your baby probably won’t take kindly to it, a small blood sample (I promise, it really is a VERY small amount) lets a medical laboratorian see whether your baby is at risk, letting you take action as soon as possible.

5 – They protect public health, not just individual patients – Though short, a summer in Vermont is always memorable. The shady green of the hiking trails, the gorgeous sunsets over Lake Champlain, the seasonal giardia…wait, what?  You read that right, seasonal giardia.  Like pretty much every other doctor’s office in the country, as soon as it got warm enough to swim we stocked up on the fecal-testing kits.  Lakefront or ocean, public beaches area easily contaminated, and for the healthcare world the start of summer is often heralded by a fresh wave (sorry) of diarrheal disease.  Thanks to the efforts of medical laboratorians, doctors can confirm just what parasite or microbe is causing this distress and report up the chain to their state or local health department, creating a more vivid picture of the problem that allows for a more accurate response.  Different problems call for different actions, so without the medical laboratorians, prevention would take longer.

There you have it!  Medical laboratorians can make a big impact on your health and your family’s health, whether they work in a small lab right in your doctor’s office or they’re testing your samples at the state public health laboratory.


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