With the global coronavirus pandemic, there has been national attention on laboratory testing. The need for highly qualified individuals to do complex laboratory testing has never been more evident, and 39 new medical lab science professionals entered this workforce after graduating Saturday from a rigorous bachelor’s degree program between Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) is a health profession that provides laboratory information and services needed for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Medical laboratory scientists are the individuals that perform crucial testing currently happening for the diagnosis of coronavirus. A recent article in The New York Times stressed the importance of laboratory professionals: “In the absence of trained workers to process and analyze the nation’s tests, America’s diagnostic infrastructure will not merely wrinkle and slow, experts said. It will collapse … Since March, scientists have trickled out of laboratories, leaving chasms of expertise in a field that for years has struggled to recruit fresh talent…While the need for such workers has grown in recent years, the number of training programs that build these skill sets has dropped.”
The 87-year-old nationally accredited MLS program was established by OHSU in 1933, and today is a joint Oregon Tech-OHSU program administered by Oregon Tech. It is the only four-year degree program of its kind in the state, the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and has a stunning job placement rate of nearly 100% within three to six months of graduation.
The MLS program prepares students through an intensive curriculum that is strong in biology and chemistry emphases. Students also participate in labs that include analysis of human samples on the latest equipment, and a 9-week, 40-hour-a-week externship at one of more than 60 medical facilities that partner with Oregon Tech -- this year in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii and Wyoming. Due to coronavirus, externships this year were reduced from 16 weeks to 9 weeks to accommodate increased coronavirus constraints at partner sites. The MLS faculty developed simulated lab experiences on campus to help supplement and prepare students for their externships.
Graduating summa cum laude, Trevor Davis spoke on behalf of the MLS Class of 2020: “Through teamwork and collaboration, this cohort has overcome unprecedented challenges. Our ability to work together to achieve a common goal has prepared us well for our careers as health care professionals. As medical lab scientists, we may be ‘behind the scenes,’ however, we are valuable members of the health care team and have a direct impact on providing quality patient care.” Trevor became interested in the MLS program at Oregon Tech-OHSU after graduating from Oregon State with a degree in microbiology. “I knew I wanted to further my education and use my skills in the lab to help people by working in the field of health care,” he shared. Trevor has been hired at Kootenai Health in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
MLS is a highly competitive program, admitting only 50 students a year. Located at Oregon Tech’s Portland-Metro campus in the city of Wilsonville, the program trains students in labs built to spec, so students are learning in the same environments in which they will eventually work. With a low student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1, students get the attention they need from the program’s faculty. All MLS graduates must pass a comprehensive, nationally administered exam that tests students’ knowledge in a number of areas. Oregon Tech graduates have much higher average scores than are seen nationally.
MLS graduates have a wide field of employment from which to choose and can be found working as medical laboratory generalists in hospitals, clinics or commercial laboratories; as specialists in areas such as microbiology, hematology, molecular biology/DNA, immunology, stem cell/bone marrow labs; or as quality management specialists in hospitals or industry operations such as pharmaceuticals. Many graduates are offered immediate positions from their externship sites- this year at employers such as Salem Clinic, Legacy Meridian Park, Peace Health SW Medical Center, Legacy Emanuel, OHSU, Asante-Rogue Valley Medical Center, Kootenai Health in Idaho and Willamette Valley Medical Center. Graduates of the program currently earn average starting salaries of $56,000 and are in professional positions at virtually every medical lab in Oregon, with many working in nearby states.