Patient Care Through the Kaleidoscope of the Laboratory
By Jessica Lawless MLS(ASCP)CM
I sit here on my back patio looking at my colorful Tibetan prayer flats and my rainbow pride lights, and I am reminded of how beautiful diversity can be. I have been working on ASCLS projects quite a bit lately, to prepare for JAM 2021 in a couple of weeks. My mind is swirling around how important it is to recognize and celebrate all the various perspectives that exist in the laboratory world. Each department attracts a different type of skill set and even different personalities.
Hematology scientists tend to be very intuitive and determined. They look at normal and abnormal cells in both blood and body fluids. Their ability to spot abnormalities and use their past experiences to differentiate various cell lines is a key component to their contribution to patient care. Many times, it is the hematology scientist who first knows of a blood disorder in a patient. Their passion to quickly have these findings reviewed to expedite patient care is a testament to their caring nature.
Chemistry scientists are experts at fast paced multi-tasking. They are organized and methodical. They can quickly review a set of lab values and spot problems with specimen quality and specimen contamination. They can handle large amounts of data and are quick to help the rest of the medical team to address critical labs. They are typically no-nonsense personalities who are focused on high quality results in a timely manner. They usually maintain excellent technical skills with pipetting, dilutions, reagent preparation, and, of course, mechanical knowledge of their instruments.
The urinalysis department is all about the end products. They thrive in aiding diagnosis by examination of waste products. Their department gives clues to how the body is working as a system and is one of the primary places where clues that a patient is unhealthy can be found. These scientists understand how various health issues manifest in the outputs of the body. They also have acute observation skills in identifying abnormal contents of urine, as well as a broad knowledge of microscope use and how chemicals additives can aid in the distinction of various urine crystals.
Scientists who work in coagulation studies tend to be process oriented. They thrive in identifying what part of the cascade is affected by disease, disorder, and medication. They know when to suspect a break in the chain of events versus an inhibiting substance. They are typically focused on how the lab processes are carried out and are usually wonderful SOP writers since they understand the best order in which tasks should be completed.
Immunohematology, or blood banking, scientists are expert puzzle solvers. They use critical thinking skills every day and have a strong understanding of the immune process. Blood bankers are focused on patient safety and are wonderful advocates for patient care. They tend to be artists in the lab when it comes to developing personal styles of workflow. Their ability to quickly change gears and accelerate from a slow, pre-warmed, long process to the fast paced, frantic movements of a trauma is unmatched by the other departments. They accomplish all of this while still maintaining the highest care standards regarding individual patient needs and requirements.
Microbiology scientists are experts at aiding in the treatment of patients. Their expertise in various organisms is unparalleled in any other part of the laboratory. Their identification of organisms drives which medication will be effective. They help track organisms who are resistant to various common medications, aid in identifying and reducing nosocomial infections, and have a wide variety of experience with using chemicals to aid in their investigations. Due to the nature of microbiology work, most micro scientists are patient and methodical, and bring a bit of calm to the craziness that is common in the core laboratory.
The molecular lab has its own challenges. The scientists who work in molecular are highly trained to understand organisms on the cellular and smaller level. They are creative and meticulous. They tend to be flexible and laid back because they work in an ever-changing world whose demands can morph on a daily basis. They are constantly learning new processes and methods as science leans more and more heavily on their expertise. They lead the lab in laboratory developed testing and creative solutions to brand new problems. They thrive in environments with extremely small sample sizes and use fine motor skills with ease. They are also experts at preventing and identifying sample contamination, further aiding in the effective treatment of patients.
Generalists in the laboratory are the prime example of good at everything but expert at nothing. They are versatile and helpful. Often, they work on short-staffed off-shifts and so are accustomed to the pulls from the various departments. They tend to be “big picture” thinkers and are not as concerned with detailed processes. They have an acute understanding of how all the lab departments work together to confirm diagnosis and facilitate treatment plans. They are team players and normally get along with their fellow coworkers in the various departments.
Specimen processing and receiving requires specific skill sets. These laboratorians live in a world of attention to detail. They are meticulous, quick, and patient. They have a high tolerance for answering the same questions all day, every day. They know where every specimen type goes in the lab and how they need to be prepared before getting there. Many have a vast knowledge of the testing catalog in their facility, as well as an understanding of the various reference tests that are available. They are energetic and hard working and are the backbone to the timeliness of testing.
Many labs also employ specialists. These scientists are driven individuals. They love to learn and are passionate about their area of expertise. They are typically on the cutting edge of industry knowledge and are quick to disseminate correct and up-to-date information to their lab peers. They have hyper focus on goals and are many times the driving force for policy change and process evaluation.
New graduate scientists are a gem in the laboratory world. They are energetic and passionate. They strive for comradery and bring a bit of fun to the serious nature of the lab. They are excited to learn and find their own place in the laboratory world and thrive on curiosity and energy to get their tasks completed. They make up for their lack of experience with much needed positivity and excitement.
My final category (though there are many others) is the scientist who entered the laboratory career, non-traditionally. They have valuable knowledge of other industries and careers. They see the lab from a completely different angle. They chose the laboratory after pursuing other options, and so many times their love and devotion for lab science is incomparable. Many times, they feel behind in their skills, so they focus on “catching up” quickly to prove their worth. These scientists can be the heart of the lab, adding an element of purpose and devotion to the science.
As you can see, laboratory staff has a wonderful array of personalities and skill sets. It is an accomplishment to have so many parts work together to aid the rest of the medical team in providing the best patient care possible. The lab is only one piece of the medical team pie, but I like to think of us as a mixed berry piece of that pie. Our seamless orchestration of the testing of various specimen types, our ability to maintain high quality testing, and our ability to overcome instrument issues and troubleshooting is what marks us as such a valuable member of patient care. We, as colorful kaleidoscope pieces, come together to form a beautiful mosaic of laboratory science.