by Chris Wolski

The consequences of forgetting the lab in healthcare planning and taking laboratorians for granted is helping to fuel the catastrophic labor shortages that have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I recently had a Mohs procedure to remove a basal cell carcinoma on my temple (the likely result of sitting in years of sun-soaked California gridlock). While my primary purpose of addressing this carcinoma was my health, it also turned into a bit of first-hand field research.

As a laboratorian you know what was involved on the lab side of the equation—biopsy and microscopy—and the result, excision of the pesky cells, and a nice new scar for me.

That should be the end of the story—and what should follow is blank space—but I learned something as sat there under local anesthetic. During the procedure, the surgeon chatted with the nurse and the physician intern assisting him. One of the subjects they talked about was his upcoming move to a different facility. Instead of joining his colleague—my primary dermatologist—at a shiny, brand-new site, he was moving to an older location down the road. Why? Because the team that designed the shiny, brand-new facility had left out one crucial element—a pathology lab.

I was, to put it mildly, floored. But as I reflected more, it didn’t surprise me. When most patients see their primary or a specialist and a blood or skin sample is taken, they’re told its being sent to the “lab,” a magical place that produces results and analysis. At least that’s how I thought about it before I took the reins at CLP. Now I know better. That overlooked lab space just shined a big spotlight for me on how clinical laboratories aren’t just taken for granted by patients but by the healthcare enterprise. Forgetting the lab could be a one-in-a-million occurrence. It might be, but it was still an oversight. And in healthcare, no one can afford an oversight.

At about the same time, I was recording the first episode of CLP’s podcast Clinical Lab Chat. My guest, Jennifer MacCormack, COLA’s technical writer (who also wrote an excellent article on clinical lab disaster planning in the upcoming issue of CLP), and I discussed how laboratorians can become better communicators. Near the end of the podcast, she made a great point about why laboratorians need to do so—because while society depends on the work they do, no one really knows laboratorians exist; and, as a consequence of forgetting the lab, it’s helping to fuel the massive labor shortage we’re seeing in labs across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the critical importance of the clinical laboratory and laboratorians. We—laboratorians, primary physicians, payers, patients, and publications like CLP—just need to make sure that light stays shining and we don’t forget the lab. Forgetting the lab for any reason is a consequence none of us can afford.

Chris Wolski is chief editor of CLP.