Medical Laboratory Science Program reinvents itself with new name, new energy
By Matt Westerfield
In some ways, medical laboratory science is one of the youngest and one of the oldest programs in the School of Health Related Professions.
It’s young in that it is now a stand-alone program, where until recently it had been grouped with cytotechnology and health sciences under the Department of Diagnostic and Clinical Health Sciences. It also has a new name, swapping “clinical” for “medical” laboratory science to more accurately represent a profession that largely remains behind the scenes.
These changes, along with strong enrollment and increasing awareness, are helping the program overcome an identity crisis that has shadowed it for much of its history, dating back to its inception as a hospital-based certificate program in 1956.
“We’re the hidden profession,” said Dr. La’Toya Richards, associate professor and program director. “I’m the person who runs all your laboratory tests, but most people think we are the people who draw blood because those are the only ones who have face-to-face contact with the patient.
“When people see the face of the lab, they’re looking at a phlebotomist, when most medical laboratory scientists are degreed individuals who work behind the scenes.”
The name change is a direct result of the recent merging of the profession’s two credentialing agencies, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel (NCA), Richards explained.
Previously, a professional was credentialed either as a medical technologist or as a clinical laboratory scientist, adding to the confusion. But now that there’s a single licensure exam, there will only be the MLS credential.
This confusion has contributed to persistent recruitment challenges for the program ever since it was incorporated into SHRP as a bachelor of science program in 1977, despite a robust demand for the profession nationwide.
“They really changed the name to clarify the profession,” said Dr. Renee Wilkins, assistant professor and coordinator of the online progression track. “That’s why we’ve had recruiting issues because the career has an identity crisis. It’s gone through three name changes, so people are confused.”
Richards, who began as a health sciences faculty member, was named program director in 2007, about a year after the program became part of the Department of Diagnostic and Clinical Health Sciences. That move was prompted partly by low enrollment numbers and partly because of faculty challenges.
Last year, mls became its own program again, albeit one that is temporarily without a chairman.
In fact, Richards and her colleagues all are relatively fresh faces to the faculty with the notable exception of Tom Wiggers.
Wiggers, associate professor, was the very first faculty member hired when the program launched at SHRP in 1977 under its first chairman, Frances Freeman. He had just earned his master’s degree.
“I laugh at them occasionally,” Wiggers said of his younger colleagues. “I tell them they don’t know what hard times are. I remember a year that we graduated three students.
“By the time you add up the (current) traditional and progression students, we have 62 students in the program. Enrollment is as high as it’s ever been.”
The early days of the program were frankly awful, Wiggers says. It struggled with little visibility, few students and poor funding. So what was it that kept him here?
“In those days under Dean Tom Freeland, the feeling of this school was that you were part of a family,” he said. “You loved coming to work every day, and it was a wonderful place to be.”
Today, with an energetic young faculty, including Richards and Wilkins as well as Dr. Stacy Vance and Dr. Felicia Tardy — all former students of Wiggers’ — he says he’s optimistic for the future. In fact, Wiggers says that family atmosphere has returned to what it was like in those early years.
“I’ve been around a long time, and this is the best core faculty this program has had since its inception,” he said. “The current faculty — with the exception of myself — are all Ph.D.s and all generalists, all certified. We’ve never had that before.
“It’s the broadest scope of knowledge the faculty has ever had.