CEO SUMMARY: One surprise about online distance learning (ODL) programs for medical technologists (MT) is that even small hospital laboratories can use them to recruit and train more MTs. Across the United States, a growing number of labs are experiencing a shortage of MTs in their local community. A handful of early-adopter laboratories has already recognized the benefits of online distance training as a way to develop more MTs to work in their labs. In this exclusive briefing, small and large laboratories report on their experience at using ODL MT training. Without reservation, they consider it a valuable management tool that they recommend to other laboratories.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of intelligence briefings on effective management strategies for recruiting and retaining medical technologists (MT) and medical laboratory technicians (MLT) in tight labor markets.
ONLINE DISTANCE LEARNING (ODL) is a powerful tool to combat the shrinking number of medical technologists (MTs).
That’s the consensus of lab managers and pathologists who have first-hand experience with ODL-trained med techs in their laboratories. ODL is also an effective way to provide new career opportunities for laboratory staff and science graduates, further expanding the supply of med techs in a community.
In a previous issue, THE DARK REPORT profiled the MT online distance learning program offered by the Medical College of Georgia (MCG), in Augusta. (See TDR, June 16, 2003.) In this issue, lab managers actively using ODL training for med techs provide insight into the benefits and pitfalls of such programs. Ranging in size from a 55-bed hospital to the second largest laboratory facility in the United States, these labs are partnering with MCG to provide the clinical laboratory rotation portion of ODL medical technologist training.
From a strategic perspective, labs must have a plan ready to deal with the recognized national shortage of MTs. ODL is a valid tool for responding to this steadily-developing crisis in lab staffing. As the following case studies demonstrate, even smaller laboratories gain significant benefits from training MTs with an ODL program.
55-Bed Hospital Lab
Washington County Regional Medical Center
“In small hospital settings, advancing the technical skills of even one person in the laboratory can have huge impact,” stated Lynn Miller, Laboratory Manager of Washington County Regional Medical Center in Sandersville, Georgia.
Miller’s laboratory provides laboratory testing services to the 55-bed hospital and its related, 50-bed extended care facility on a 24/7 basis. “We have six MTs,” she explained. “The ODL program made a big difference in our laboratory in positive ways we didn’t anticipate.
“It started with our first ODL MT student,” she noted. “Pam Lord was a medical laboratory technician (MLT) who had worked for years in our lab. Although almost 50 years old, she still dreamt of becoming a medical technologist. She obtained a Hope Scholarship from Georgia, but family and job commitments prevented her from traveling the 70 miles to the MCG campus in Augusta.
“However, MCG’s online distance learning program allowed Lord to continue her employment as an MLT, obtain her didactic training on the Internet and do her clinical training in our hospital laboratory,” added Miller.
“We now have a great MT that already knows our lab. She can work any shift with no direct supervision and she earns about 20% more a year,” Miller said. “And there were additional benefits. Everyone in the lab was enthusiastic about Lord’s ODL training. Because of her, we all learned new things. The didactic material and Pam’s questions made it a learning experience for us all!
“Further, the time set aside for clinical training and exams was not a burden on our lab,” continued Miller. “Lord’s enthusiasm while earning her MT certification rubbed off on others. We now have phlebotomists showing an interest in the MT program.”
Miller offered some caveats for other laboratories. “I recommend that any lab try this ODL MT program. It is cost- effective and quality learning for the staff. However, this is a rigorous program for students who maintain a full-time work schedule. So allow time for the student and make sure they have needed support,” she advised.
“Retention of lab employees is important,” added Miller. “Long distance MT training is a great morale booster. It gives people hope in smaller towns, where they often have no nearby source for MT training.”
Such hope is important, notes Miller. “What makes the effort worth- while is that we retain a good employee in our lab, provide staff with expanded career opportunities, and get better coverage in our lab,” stated Miller. “Losing an MT in a small lab like ours, means losing over 15% of the workforce. That hurts, because we have a smaller pool of qualified people to draw from than those in big city hospitals.”
400-Bed Hospital System Lab
Gwinnett Hospital System
In Lawrenceville, Georgia, Gwinnett Hospital System consists of three hospitals, totaling 479 beds. It also has additional healthcare facilities in the area. Recruiting healthcare professionals, including laboratory staff, is an ongoing challenge.
“Our laboratories employ 48 MTs and MLTs (Medical Laboratory Technologists),” observed Nancy Charron, Administrative Director of Laboratory Services at Gwinnett Hospital System. “MCG’s ODL program enabled us to offer a career path that allows the employee to ‘have-it-all’—a family, a job, and additional schooling. We had offered MLT and MT internships in the past, so this was an easy fit for us.
“Currently we have one student in the program,” said Charron. “She came to us with no laboratory back- ground and will graduate in about one year. We prepare labs for her, help her with her reading, and administer tests. She is both motivated and self-directed. This is important, as ODL students have much to do on their own if they are to come to the lab prepared. Conducting interviews with a potential student is very important. They need a high motivational quotient.”
Charron’s favorable experience with ODL training encouraged her to expand the program within her laboratory. The Gwinnett laboratory has a newly-hired MLT who is already accepted into the MT program. Three additional MLTs are completing their requirements to enter MCG’s ODL program.
“From my perspective as the laboratory administrator, the ODL MT pro- gram makes good sense,” she said. “It aids in recruitment and retention of lab staff. It provides career opportunities where none previously existed and it opens a career path for science graduates. That attracts new people to the field of laboratory medicine.
“Supporting an ODL student has been a great experience for us,” continued Charron. “Although there is a time commitment for the supervisors and lead techs, we have all become better informed, updated our technical knowledge, and been positively motivated.
“We did learn that communication is a huge issue,” she added. “It takes good organizational and communication skills to ensure that the college, the student, and lab supervisors are all on the ‘same page’ of the program. However, once you’ve done this for one student, the overall process is much easier.
“Online distance training has worked so well for us that we are now looking for opportunities in postgraduate training,” Charron said. “Because our staff is the future of our laboratory, we want them to pursue additional education. We are actively seeking program offerings and wish the laboratory profession did more to let us know where these programs are. It seems like we often find such programs by chance.”
Oregon Medical Laboratories, Inc.
Oregon Medical Laboratories, Inc. (OML) found itself with an interesting labor quandary. It is located in Eugene, Oregon, home to the University of Oregon and lots of graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree. But Oregon’s MT training is done 100 miles away, at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland and OHSU offers no online distance learning program for MTs.
“OML employs about 200 MTs and MLTs,” stated Ran Whitehead, Chief Operating Officer at OML. “We have more open MT positions than we can fill and the average age of our MT workforce is 47. So we have immediate pressures to expand the number of MTs in our community, not to mention a few years out, when our long-established MTs begin retirement.”
OML is an independent laboratory company owned by PeaceHealth. In addition to an active business providing testing to physicians’ offices, it provides testing for 400-bed Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene and two smaller hospitals in central Oregon. It is almost half-way through a two-year program of MT online distance learning, funded in part by grants from the Lane County Economic Development Agency. (See TDR, October 28, 2002.)
“For OML, boosting the pool of MTs in Central Oregon is a key part of our business strategy,” stated Judith McClain, Education Coordinator. “OML has an active business providing testing services to a number of rural hospitals around the state. We want our online distance training program to be a resource for rural hospital labs as well as for OML.”
McClain is referring to the 30 hospitals which are members of Health Futures. Rural hospital labs in Health Futures are keenly interested in ODL and are willing to be clinical partners in ODL training for MTs.
“We are using Medical College of Georgia for ODL,” noted Gloria Foust, Human Resources Director at OML. “Out-of-state tuition is traditionally higher, but ODL reduces the university’s costs. To make ODL as cost-effective as possible for us, all our laboratories want to collectively bring more ODL students to MCG and other colleges and generate a price break for our students.”
McClain observed that “OML has a proactive business approach. This addresses both our immediate and future needs for trained laboratory professionals,” she said. “In so doing, it creates career opportunities for MLTs and science graduates to become certified MTs. These are higher-paying jobs for our science graduates in Eugene, who otherwise work as phlebotomists or lab assistants.”
OML does have criteria for its ODL MT students. “Such students must meet academic requirements and have high marks on a 360 performance appraisal,” stated McClain. “ They are rewarded with tuition reimbursement for at least one year of the program, and the potential of higher pay when they graduate.”
In addition to MT certification through MCG’s ODL training pro- gram, OML has used ODL for the Molecular Laboratory Diagnostics Certificate program offered by Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. “Our lab has additional needs in microbiology and the blood bank. We also need a vehicle to educate our staff in more specialized areas such as coagulation and genomics. We are actively seeking ODL training programs that can support these needs,” stated Foust.
OML recognized the economic benefits of ODL MT training. “To replace an MT costs OML approximately $20,000,” explained Whitehead “This covers lost productivity, sign-on bonus, backfill, advertising, training, moving expenses, and similar costs. We do this type of cost-benefit analysis when we consider tuition reimbursement and the value of ODL training to Oregon Medical Laboratories.”
Med Informatics Has ODL Program
ANOTHER AREA OF INTEREST for online distance learning (ODL) is medical informatics. Because laboratory test results form a large part of the patient health record, many lab managers have a keen interest in developing their knowledge and credentials in the field of medical informatics.
Oregon Health Science University (OHSU), in Portland, Oregon offers two ODL programs in medical informatics . One is a Graduate Certificate Program in Medical Informatics. The other is a Master of Medical Informatics. OHSU was among the first to offer a medical informatics distance-learning program.
About 200 students from around the world are currently enrolled in OHSU’s two ODL medical informatics programs. More than half are physicians. Other ODL students have backgrounds in nursing, pharmacy, library sciences, health care administration and other fields.
To find out more about OHSU’s ODL programs, go to www.ohsu.edu/biocinformatics/distance/. Students that are members of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems (AMDIS) are eligible for a tuition discount of five percent.
National Laboratory Company
Quest Diagnostics Incorporated-Atlanta
Even within the national laboratory companies, the MT shortage has triggered active steps to utilize ODL MT training programs. One example is the laboratory operated by Quest Diagnostics Incorporated in Tucker, Georgia, which has employees participating in MCG’s ODL MT program.
Located just north of Atlanta, the Tucker lab facility is one of the largest in the United States. Daily it performs between 80,000 and 90,000 lab procedures. According to Raymond L. Kaplan, Ph.D., Clinical Scientist at Tucker, there are always at least five to eight unfilled MT positions. “That’s due to the ever-increasing volume of tests being performed, the introduction of new tests, and employee movement,” he said. “Most open positions are on the midnight shift, which is always more challenging to staff. New science graduates pursue midnight shift positions as lab assistants, knowing that such a strategy will maximize their opportunity to move into MT positions once their education is complete.”
“Our lab in Tucker has had a long relationship with Medical College of Georgia,” stated Linda Keel, Technical Recruiter. “For years we have actively recruited senior MT students on the MCG campus. When the MT shortage started hitting us hard, we discovered MCG’s ODL program.
“We quickly recognized the ODL MT program allowed us to create a promotional career ladder well-suited to the needs of our own science graduate employees, already working as MLTs, lab assistants or phlebotomists,” recalled Keel. “Quest Diagnostics provides 100% tuition reimbursement. This is a great incentive, particularly when combined with a higher pay grade after graduation.”
The upcoming school year will be the first time the Tucker laboratory has students involved in ODL MT training. “A student must first meet MCG’s qualifications,” noted Kaplan. “We then look at years of service and performance reviews. We are using a panel of people to determine eligibility criteria, as we can only take a limited number of students into clinical rotation.”
Because of strong interest in ODL MT training, Keel and Kaplan are developing a plan to partner with hospital labs in the area for those students that can’t do their clinical rotation at Quest Diagnostics Incorporated. “We realize there’s a risk of losing some of our people when they complete their training,” said Kaplan. “But most importantly, there are additional MTs out there providing patient care.”
At the moment, Kaplan and Keel expect that at least ten students from their lab will be in the ODL program for the fall term, with two or three students doing their clinical rotation at Quest’s Tucker lab. The remaining students will complete their clinical rotation at one of several local hospital laboratories. Kaplan also expects to have several students enrolled in the upcoming Molecular Diagnostic ODL program at MCG, anticipated to commence this fall.
Kaplan and Keel believe ODL will be immensely beneficial for their laboratory. They consider improved employee satisfaction, enriched employee opportunities, and progress toward meeting Quest Diagnostic’s business needs to be well-served by ODL training. “On a macro level, the benefits outweigh the costs,” noted Kaplan. “The costs of tuition reimbursement, time to fill open positions, advertising, training, and orientation are clearly outweighed by the benefits of ODL. This is so obvious that we don’t need to do the math.
“In fact, we need to be proactive in attracting more MTs to our laboratory,” continued Kaplan. “This is a hub lab for Quest Diagnostics Incorporated. We do 98% of the testing that comes into this location. Our menu of complex testing is expanding. As a result, our needs are different from some of the smaller labs. We need proportionately more highly trained medical technologists to meet present and future needs.”
Expanded Use Of ODL
As the case studies presented here demonstrate, online distance learning for medical technologists is gaining rapid acceptance. Those labs which have tried it, endorse it—without qualification. That’s a powerful recommendation because it’s based on actual experience.
THE DARK REPORT predicts that several universities, like Medical College of Georgia, will emerge as the leaders in ODL training programs for various areas of laboratory medicine. Because such programs are cost-effective, the handful of labs using ODL training will increase substantially across the nation.
Lab administrators and pathologists should consider online distance learning as another effective tool to address the challenges of technical labor in the laboratory. On one hand, it is a way to attract and expand the pool of qualified candidates that can be recruited to work in the lab. On the other hand, for existing laboratory staff, it is a way to advance their personal careers while, at the same time, developing additional education and skills in more complex diagnostics that every lab will need over time.