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The Interview: Douglas Beigel

Parents encourage their children to become doctors and nurses, but how many of them grow up dreaming to become lab technicians?

Not too many, and that is something Columbia-based company COLA wants to change.

The largest accreditor of medical labs in the country knows firsthand about the shortage of lab workers and is doing its part to try and reverse the trend.

Nearly 14,000 new lab professionals are needed annually, yet schools produce only 5,000 per year, according to the company.

In Maryland, the state Commission on the Shortage in the Health Care Workforce ranked "medical and clinical laboratory technicians" the ninth most in-demand health care occupation.

COLA , which increased its employee count in the state by 22 percent despite the challenging economy, has been visiting schools across the state promoting the profession. It is also encouraging labs to do the same.

COLA CEO Doug Beigel talked to The Baltimore Sun about careers in the lab and what his organization is doing to promote it.

Why is there a shortage of lab techs?

It's like a perfect storm that has happened over the years. It is combination of medical technology schools closing. As a result of that, you also have most of the medical technologists as well the medical lab technicians who are aging out or retiring. You also have this huge explosion … where every health care facility essentially has a laboratory in it. It is one of those areas where they are having difficulty finding people.

Why are the schools closing?

It's not based on what the needs are in terms of the labor force. I believe the institutions are looking at enrollment and the stature of laboratory technology in the overall medical scheme of things. They are not allocating their dollars, even though there is this huge need.

Is it not considered a glamorous job?

Students don't understand this even exists. There is this huge opportunity if kids know about this when making decisions about their careers.

U.S News and World Report in 2011 named lab technician as one of the best careers.

How did COLA get involved in this topic?

Our mission is to educate, consult and [accredit] laboratories throughout the nation. … We visit 4,000 laboratories around the nation every year. [As we visited,] we saw this constant need for people to fill positions. … Our first priority is quality patient care. If we can help in any way to encourage people to go into this profession, that is a home run for everybody.

What is your organization doing to help with the shortage of lab techs?

We held give-back days. We went to different middle schools. What we did there was we showed the kids what it would be like in the profession. We had them make slime, and they put on laboratory coats and goggles. Our message … this is a career option for you.

We also went to [community colleges]. Some students had already selected to go into the medical technician programs and others weren't sure. We tell them the story about medical technology and why they should consider it.

When labs don't have enough employees, does that make it harder to meet accreditation standards?

It makes it harder on everybody. If you have five jobs that need to get done and two are vacant, that puts the burden on the laboratory.

What do lab techs do?

When you go to the doctor and give a specimen — from the time it is analyzed and tested and given back to the physician — that comes under the purview of a lab technician. …The lab technician is a critical member of the health care team.

Why is the job of lab tech important in the medical field?

It is one of those quiet professions that probably is one of the most pivotal jobs in health care. Seventy percent of medical decisions are being made off their data.

What kind of education do you need?

It is like getting a biology degree. You can have an associate's degree, and that is called medical lab technician. … Some people start with a two-year degree and then complete work for a bachelor's degree. They then become medical technologists.

How much can a lab tech make?

$54,000, and at the upper level $65,000 per year. This is based on the national average.

Where do lab techs work besides hospitals?

Literally every place that medical care is given involves some area of laboratory testing. That could be research for a pharmaceutical company. That could be fairs where you go to get your blood pressure checked or public clinics where HIV testing is done. Most of the testing is done in physicians' offices.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com:ankwalker

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