A medical laboratory scientist uses state-of-the-art biomedical instruments and molecular techniques to develop, implement, and analyze highly complex tests that can detect infections, diseases, or in this case, the SARS CoV-2 virus, known more commonly as COVID-19 disease.
As COVID-19 testing ramps up, medical laboratory scientists face a growing workload on top of their day-to-day duties. Each COVID-19 test takes anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours to complete depending on the testing system, according to Pesavento, and that’s if there are no mistakes. “These are highly complicated tests that require extensive training. Once you receive a sample, you process, extract, amplify, and finally you interpret the results as positive or negative before reporting to a physician,” explains Pesavento.
However, it’s not the complexities of testing that worry Pesavento, but the lack of trained professionals to conduct them. “There’s a nationwide shortage of medical laboratory scientists,” says Pesavento. In fact, many laboratories were short-staffed before the pandemic hit. “Because we are not visible, it was easy to overlook this chronic shortage.”
Two reasons behind the shortage are the high rate at which medical laboratory scientists are retiring combined with the lack of academic programs to help replace those retirees. According to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, 39 MLS programs either closed or lost accreditation between 2000 and 2016.
“Although we don’t see the patients face, each sample that comes in is an actual person. We know there is someone behind these results, every single test, every patient, every day.”
At a time where the profession is not only in demand, but also a critical component in combating the pandemic, medical laboratory scientists like Pesavento are doing everything possible to keep up with demand. That means working overtime and extra days, as well as risking their own safety to make sure patients get their diagnoses in a timely manner. “Although we don’t see a patient’s face, each sample that comes in is a person” says Pesavento. “We know there is someone behind these results, every single test, every patient, every day.”
As the only practicing medical laboratory scientist on Loyola’s faculty, Pesavento hopes to encourage more science-minded students to consider pursuing an MLS degree and become the hidden heroes the country needs in times like these.