Diary of the “mad” med-lab techs

July 1, 2010

Education leave is not a misnomer
Attendance at meetings and symposia like ASM, AABB, and AACC are all critical to the development of a good manager, and should be encouraged for all levels of lab techs. Whoever goes must be required to provide in-services to the lab staff and, when appropriate, to other hospital department managers as well. Let the hospital administration see that there is a return on their investment.

Deciding who goes to these gets to be harder and harder, with cutbacks in overall travel funding. Techs in many “progressive” labs used to be hired with the understanding that labs would help defray some of the costs of advanced education (usually with the caveat that it would lead to a higher rung on the ladder — for example, MLT to MT, MT to supervisor). One of the benefits of this “wired nation” is that many classes are now available online at little or no cost. You will find that your more ambitious employees will tell you about many of these meetings. If there are costs associated with such travel, perhaps you can compromise on some of these expenses — for example, if the employee needs a day off in order to take exams, work it out so that day is called “education leave.”

One last big decision — who gets to go for training on your new whiz-bang analyzer? Remember that it needs to be the person who can and will be best at training everyone else. If that is not you (or your pathologist), this is not the trip to take.

—Chuck Millstein, MBA, MT(ASCP), CLDir(NCA),
retired (and loving it)

Budget cutting hurts learning
A prominent scientist and friend encouraged (recently retired) me to attend the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) conference in San Diego this year. (Not to mention names, but his famous father was the developer/discoverer/inventor of the auramine-rhodamine stain, also known as Truant's auramine-rhodamine stain.)

This was a sad/glad experience for me in that I am no longer a practicing clinical microbiology supervisor but now assuming the role of “mentor.” Having attended many ASM conferences over the years, I am a strong supporter. And I can remember coming away from these conferences absolutely brimming with new ideas, and practical and new approaches to identification and susceptibility testing, along with many other amazing advances in technology.

Not only do the symposia, colloquiums, sessions, and seminars offer every imaginable division, but also impressive is the amount of effort and dedication it takes for microbiologists to research, document, and present the vast number of poster sessions. The poster sessions are an absolute smorgasbord of information! But one of the most valuable experiences that I take home with me is meeting new people, and learning and exchanging new ideas and information with them.

While at the conference in San Diego, I received a phone call from a colleague at the medical center where I had been employed. She told me the administrators were implementing a cutback by offering a retirement package for anyone 55 years and older. This is not new and seems to happen about every 10 years or so in many institutions. But today, with the huge number of baby boomers leaving the job force, we are losing so many of our valuable, experienced, and knowledgeable professionals — who are being replaced by young, fresh-faced, neophytes. They are smart, enthusiastic, qualified, and have passed all the examinations (or they would not be here) … but clinical microbiology demands years of experience in order to accurately interpret individual patient-specific infections. But that is another matter entirely

Over the years, I went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of these annual meetings to my administrators. When things are tight, the biggest mistake they can make is to cut back or freeze the education fund, especially now: Find other ways to cut back. These meetings are vital … the only true way to keep abreast in this rapidly evolving age of technology. Our new laboratory technologists — and I am not only talking about the supervisors but also the bench-level techs — need this continuing education supplement in addition to their ongoing education and experience. Ensure that these techs are bringing back new information; require that they prepare and present a synopsis of their discoveries.

Wake up for the ASM sunrise symposiums
These short, concise sessions are jewels of information most-often earmarked for the bench-level techs. And as of this year, they are free. I try to always get my wake-up call early enough so as not to miss them (7:00 a.m.-8:00 a.m.). A test of loyalty to the profession is to make the effort to get up early enough for the sunrise symposiums after a night of “complimentary entertainment.”

One last suggestion: Read a book!
If your institution has a textbook budget, take advantage of it. Keep these latest editions close to the bench; not stuck away in the supervisor's office. My own personal favorites:

  • Manual of Clinical Microbiology (two-volume set): improvement of their indexing would be helpful;
  • Bailey and Scott's Diagnostic Microbiology (would love to have a copy of their first edition);
  • Principles and Practices of Infectious Diseases;
  • CUMITECH — the complete compilation. These periodicals provide a wealth of practical information; and
  • Clinical Microbiology Procedures Handbook — ASM Press.