Innovation involves creating, developing, and implementing something new—a process or service, for example—to improve the current situation. Given the last 18-plus months, laboratory science educators have been innovating at unprecedented levels. Program directors provided almost 600 answers to a question concerning innovation included in the NAACLS 2020 annual survey. A quick search yielded 567 mentions of online, and 279 comments had the term virtual. Program directors and faculty incorporated learning management systems, webinar software, hybrid approaches, and asynchronous lectures to help support students when access to face-to-face classrooms and clinical rotation sites were no longer available. In the face of a nationwide, commonly shared problem, laboratory science program directors and faculty did their best to ensure their programs could continue educating students.
It is clear program directors and faculty who teach laboratory science are an innovative group. The Doctor of Clinical Laboratory Science (DCLS) degree itself is an innovation within the medical laboratory field. First considered as a new program offering in 2005, the idea of a doctoral-level clinical laboratory professional has come to fruition. Fast forward to 2021, NAACLS has two programs in Doctoral Accreditation Candidate Status, Rutgers University and University of Texas Medical Branch, and other programs are in development. The advanced practice doctorate and the curriculum designs are new, innovative, and forward thinking to address the increasingly varied needs of our profession.
Program excellence and innovation are essential to NAACLS, and NAACLS supports programs, in part, by encouraging flexibility in how they meet the Standards. Flexibility plays a crucial role in supporting students in DCLS programs and laboratory science students attending programs at all levels. For example, the availability of video lectures using web-based tools and the use of learning management systems have further strengthened the effectiveness of online learning. Didactic courses in Rutgers’ DCLS program are offered online and experienced minimal disruption in expected course delivery in 2020. According to Dr. Nadine Fydryszewski, program director, the residency year is the most innovative part of the Rutgers DCLS program. While the clinical residency year is completed on-site, students gain experience in patient care intervention, diagnostics management intervention, utilization review intervention, community intervention, and research, all facets of the diagnostics consultation model upon which their residency is built.
University of Texas Medical Branch’s program offers an on-campus/distance learning approach and uses a staggered model for their clinical rotations, according to Dr. Eddie Salazar, program director. University of Texas Medical Branch’s DCLS program focuses on creating an interprofessional environment where DCLS students teach and learn from clinical faculty, fellows, residents, and medical students. Both programs offer full-time or part-time options, and this flexibility allows them to meet the needs of students. As more laboratory science programs at all levels incorporate additional online and virtual approaches to education to improve flexibility for program faculty and students, why is it important to focus on DCLS programs and what they offer for the profession?
Innovations can create uncertainty, and some concerns about the DCLS level include the roles these graduates will play in healthcare and if there will be positions for them. Consultation services, test utilization review, research, and educating providers, patients, and families are a few of the tasks DCLS graduates are training to perform. Dr. Fydryszewski shared that Rutgers’ DCLS graduates are not only getting hired; they are often creating their job descriptions. Dr. Salazar commented that his students are forging new paths in uncharted areas for the profession. These outcomes demonstrate the value of the DCLS, raise the laboratory profession’s visibility, and point to the importance of supporting students who are in these programs. But the only way laboratory professionals can reach the DCLS level is by receiving support throughout their education. Programs can better support students if they have the flexibility to develop resources to meet emerging needs.
Supporting students has always been part of the job for program directors, and it has been even more critical over the last 18 months. The NAACLS 2020 annual survey did not specifically ask about the well-being of program directors. Although not the numbers seen with the online and virtual notations, 14 comments did mention burnout, stress, and workload. Many program directors may not want to admit feeling overwhelmed or underprepared, but we will probably continue to experience additional stress and anxiety for the foreseeable future. However, if we focus on the things that have gotten us to this point—continuous innovation, ongoing support to students and each other, and a focus on flexibility—we will continue to develop laboratory professionals who excel at all levels. The pandemic and current conditions present laboratory science educators with unprecedented opportunities for innovation. A small number of DCLS programs are showing how the medical laboratory profession continues to change and grow. In the face of unprecedented changes within the health care fields, those new and creative practices will eventually become the norm. However, we will always be discovering and creating new methodologies and techniques to support quality health care; therefore, we will need to remain vigilant and willing to continue to explore new ideas to meet the educational needs of DCLS programs and all programs within the field. New normal or business as usual, programs are surviving and preparing graduates who improve patient care and increase the visibility of the laboratory science professions. The success of the current DCLS programs and those to come is a true testament to dedicated laboratory science education professionals.
“From Where We Sit” is a collaborative effort by the DRC, PARC and RCAP chairs, Brenda Barnes, Laura Ahonen and Andrea Gordon, respectively. The NAACLS News will feature “From Where We Sit” every September and April.