Alphabet Soup

The laboratory identity crisis that can’t be solved with science

What do you call someone that works in a clinical lab? Medical laboratory science, clinical laboratory science, medical technology, biomedical laboratory science-all of those titles describe our profession. A nurse is simply a nurse, however. They get certified as a registered nurse (RN) so they can practice nursing. Unfortunately, lab professionals don’t have the luxury of a streamlined title.

I recently posed the question, “What is your title?” to lab professionals, and most of the answers looked something like this: “I graduated with a degree in clinical laboratory science. My first job title was medical technologist and my certification is medical laboratory science.”

Telling someone your title shouldn’t be as complex as explaining how a piece of instrumentation in your lab works. So, how did we end up with such an identity crisis? To answer that question, we have to look back on our history.

Our profession is a relatively new one, having only become formally organized in the 1930s. In 1933, our professional organization was chartered as the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Technicians (ASCLT), but quickly changed to the American Society of Medical Technologists (ASMT) in 1936. In 1973, the society’s name changed again-this time to the American Society for Medical Technology (ASMT)-in order to reflect the profession as opposed to the professional. In 1993, the society once again changed its name to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), which is still the name today. The changing name of our professional organization is only one piece of the puzzle, however.

In the 1970s, an independent peer certification body known as the National Certification Agency for Laboratory Personal (NCA) was formed. The NCA certified laboratory professionals as clinical laboratory scientists (CLS) or clinical laboratory technicians (CLT). The NCA served as an additional certification agency in addition to the American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Registry (ASCP-BOR), which certified professionals as medical technologist (MT) or medical technicians (MLT). In 2009, the NCA and the ASCP-BOR combined into a single organization, the Board of Certification (BOC). The BOC determined the certification would now be medical laboratory scientist (MLS) or medical laboratory technician (MLT).

While the merger in 2009 did help to streamline the name slightly, it was flawed in that it did not require everyone that was certified up to that point to switch over to the new credentials. There is still more than one certification agency for lab professionals even today. American Medical Technologists (AMT) is also a professional organization and certification body, along with the American Association of Bioanalysts (AAB). These organizations use the terms MT and MLT.

The alphabet soup of titles and credentials our profession has is an issue, but to say that it influences other issues our profession has is debatable. Kathy Cilia, CAE, director of marketing, membership and operations at AMT, believes that our profession’s problem isn’t an identity crisis as much as it is a supply-and-demand crisis.

“The number of traditional NAACLS-accredited programs has decreased over the years as has the number of students graduating from those programs,” stated Cilia. There’s no doubt that she is correct about our profession having a supply and demand crisis, but one has to wonder if the multiple name issue influences it at all.

Recently, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia officially changed its medical technology program to medical laboratory science. Margaret Reinhart, MT (ASCP), MMa, MS, director of the MLS program at USciences, decided to change the name to reflect the new certification created by the BOC.

“I did notice an increase in interest after the name was changed. Of course, the increase in interest may have just reflected the general upward trend in interest in the profession nationwide,” said Reinhart. NAACLS has reported that, since 2009, the numbers of both programs and graduates have increased slightly-or has stayed steady at the very least-but whether this can be attributed to the creation of the BOC cannot be determined.

MLS or MLT seem to be the most popular program names nowadays, followed by CLS or CLT. In the working world, however, it seems that the job title used most often by employers is MT or MLT.

“ASCP’s ‘Medical Laboratory Scientist’ is a newly introduced designation. While that addition may have added to the confusion, it does not follow that ‘Medical Technologist’ is an outdated term,” said Cilia. While there are people out there trying to push MLS as the “correct name,” Cilia has a valid point. You can easily find a job by googling “Medical Technologist,” and as Cilia pointed out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics still refers to our occupation as “Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists.”

Current ASCLS President Barbara Snyderman, MLS (ASCP), also weighed in on the issue. “I do believe we have an identity crisis. Our profession is relatively young, and it has gone through changes in educational and job requirements through the years,” she said. “However, I believe that the real issue is that we hide ourselves in the laboratory and do not interact with other health care professionals, therefore many do not know what goes on behind the walls of the laboratory.”

The key here is to understand that this issue can’t be fixed with science. We have to realize that, sometimes, we need to put the science aside and start acting like business professionals. Think of our profession like a brand. A brand can vaguely be defined as a “promise delivered.” Every day, we make a promise to customers (patients) and colleagues (doctors or nurses) that our product (lab results) is of the best quality, and we have to deliver on that promise every single time.

Defining a brand is important, but a brand is nothing without people to market it. Marketing helps to communicate the promise you want customers to know about. We market ourselves when we report out quality results and make turnaround times, but the things we do on the bench aren’t enough to market our brand. We need to market ourselves outside of the lab through an open dialogue about who we are and what we do, and this must be done throughout the 51 other weeks of the year in addition to lab week.

Having multiple names does make it harder to solidify our brand. The problem here is not so much the branding, however, but how we market ourselves.

“How can we fix the identity crisis? We need to tell people what we do! It is not just a name-whether you call yourself an MT, MLS, CLS or something else, it is important to describe what you do,” said Synderman. “Most of our colleagues want someone else to fix this. We need to join together, in a professional organization, to be the power and voice for our profession.”

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