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The growing demand for medical lab scientists and the ‘important role’ they play during COVID-19

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A former Idaho State University medical laboratory science student. | Courtesy Idaho State University

POCATELLO — Medical laboratory scientists play an important role in helping keep the health care system running, but they don’t often get credit for what they do because they work behind the scenes.

Idaho State University’s Medical Laboratory Science Program Director Rachel Hulse explained that medical lab scientists are sometimes referred to as “the doctor’s doctor.” This is because they assist primary care providers in disease diagnosis.

Between 70% and 80% of all medical decisions that primary health care providers make are based on scientist’s lab findings.

“Every tube of blood that’s drawn, every body tissue, every urine or other kind of body fluid … that might come out of the body, we’re the ones who are running the tests and the analyses on those to try to figure out what’s going on,” Hulse said.

Hulse says 100% of ISU graduates in the program are employed in the field or in a closely related field immediately after earning their degree.

ISU’s medical laboratory science program is the only accredited program in the state of Idaho that offers both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, according to Hulse.

“We actually have a huge workforce shortage, similar to what you hear about in nursing,” Hulse explained. “The number of graduates … (nationally) can’t fill the number of jobs that we have, and that’s exacerbated now, by COVID, because there’s an increased need for testing capacity.”

It can be difficult for doctors to differentiate between a cold, flu or COVID-19 without doing laboratory diagnostic testing, she said. But even if the pandemic wasn’t happening right now, testing is something that never goes away because people get sick and some have chronic health issues.

Before the onset of the pandemic, the profession was projected to grow between 10% and 16% within the next decade.

“That is way above the national average for job growth,” she said.

An article published on Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News also noted that the job outlook for medical lab scientists over the next few years is growing much faster than average.

Courtesy Idaho State University

While the occupation is something Hulse doesn’t believe is recognized enough, especially for being a “massively critical part of the healthcare team,” she feels COVID-19 has exposed the profession a little more, and the virus has helped students realize how essential and fulfilling the job is.

“I think it’s so important to recognize the other pieces of the healthcare team that are so critical, not only in healthcare in general but in a pandemic setting,” Hulse added. “It’s important to have an understanding of what those teams are and the options that (students) have.”

The ISU medical laboratory science program can be taken online. Students in Alaska, rural parts of Idaho and other areas of the country have participated in the program.

The application for the program will open in October and is due at the end of February. Students who are admitted will start the program at the beginning of the following fall semester.

More information on the program can be found here.

Former students in Idaho State University’s medical laboratory science program. | Courtesy Idaho State University
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