How Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center phlebotomy team survived the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was a hard time not only for phlebotomy, but for all healthcare facilities in the nation with staffing shortages. Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center is the largest trauma hospital in northern Maine. It is also a teaching hospital. I had a department of 53 phlebotomists; I lost 15 in a very short time. A devastating loss. We had to think of ways to meet the needs of the hospital, outpatient labs, our patients, and our community. We eventually needed to reduce the hours of our outpatient lab and put out a call to our system teams for help. Medical assistants and nurses stepped up to offer their assistance to help us care for our patients.

My first priority was addressing staffing challenges. In the beginning of the pandemic, I started a “Phlebotomy On The Job” training program. Our department had relied heavily on the two phlebotomy schools in our area, but classes stopped as schools closed due to the pandemic. Applications stopped coming in, which presented an opportunity to go full force with my training program.

What better experience for a student than to have classroom time, trainings, and clinicals in the environment they will work in? We were able to provide real-life, real-time situations for these students. I was privileged to have great support from my organization and my colleagues, and my veteran phlebotomists were excited to help with the clinical portion of the class.

We interviewed many applicants, looking for specific skills and talents to fit the role of a phlebotomist working in a trauma center. When interviewing applicants, we were open and honest about the role of a phlebotomist, since many of them had no idea what it was like to work in a hospital, especially during a pandemic. They would be working with patients with COVID-19, trauma patients, and our smallest patients in pediatrics—it was essential to let all applicants know the reality of the environment they would be working in.

Upon entering the program, students sign a commitment agreement pledging to work in the phlebotomy department here at the Medical Center for two years after finishing their training. Northern Light Laboratory invested $5,000.00 to provide the employee with the skills and training necessary to pursue certification in the phlebotomy field in return for the two-year commitment. Over the course of two weeks, students completed 80 hours of didactive lectures with me, followed by four weeks of clinicals working on patient floors, the outpatient lab, or emergency department. Every day was different as they trained side by side with our senior phlebotomist. After clinicals, they were allowed to work on their own, but the training and learning continued.

Students were hired as a phlebotomist II with the base pay of a phlebotomist II throughout the duration of the training period. Each time the employee was paid, a portion of their loan to Northern Light Laboratory was repaid. After six months of training, the students sit for the national phlebotomy exam through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). So far, this training program has had a 100% success rate passing the ASCP exam!

I taught classes for months, bringing on new students every two weeks. I only took a certain number of students to ensure great training. I wanted to be sure our specimen quality and patient care stayed top notch. It took a long time to complete training and get each student up to speed—but we did it!

Our students have excelled. Many of them have become trainers and taken charge positions on the weekends and holidays. This has been a wonderful opportunity for the members of our community to gain education and skills in the medical field. Moreover, many were unable to take a class due to schools being closed because of the pandemic, or because they could not afford the class once schools opened back up.

For more information, or if you know someone who may benefit from this training program, contact me at

[email protected]