We hear a lot about the nursing shortage. But the shortage of medical laboratory professionals is even more acute. According to the American Society of Clinical Pathology (www.ascp.org), the average vacancy rate for staff medical technologists increased by 50 percent between 2003 and 2005.

This shortage puts patient care and public health at risk. That's because about 70 percent of the information needed for diagnosis comes from the results of testing done in the lab. In addition, laboratory professionals are essential to public health efforts like food safety, environmental health and protection, and disease prevention.

Two Levels
Medical technologists (MTs) and medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) are the backbone of the lab. MTs, or clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), perform tests on blood, body fluids, tissues and cells. They also develop and evaluate tests, interpret data, analyze results and communicate results to physicians and other providers. MTs must complete a four-year degree with a major in medical technology.

MLTs, also known as clinical laboratory technicians (CLTs), complete a two-year associate degree in medical technology. They perform less complex tests and lab procedures, and usually work under the supervision of medical technologists or laboratory managers.

As the shortage of lab professionals has worsened, efforts have increased to improve career ladders and make it easier to move from the technician to the technologist level.

Improving Articulation
In the past, articulation has been a problem, according to Robbi Montgomery, director of education for clinical laboratories at Hennepin County Medical Center (www.hcmc.org). Technicians who return to school to complete a four-year degree sometimes find that previous credits don't transfer. As a result, they may have to repeat course work.

"We're working to change that," Montgomery says. She notes that two- and four-year programs are now articulated within the Minnesota State College and University (www.mnscu.edu) system. The clinical laboratory science program at the University of Minnesota (www.cls.umn.edu) also accepts credits earned in many two-year programs.

Montgomery advises that technicians planning to return to school talk with the program director first. "Ask how much of your previous course work will transfer, and whether the program offers credit for learning gained on the job," she says.

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.