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Pandemic Spotlights the Vital Role of Military Lab Workers

Image of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Solomon, 18th Medical Support Squadron NCO in charge of microbiology, unloads blood samples from a centrifuge at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jan. 31, 2019. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks, U.S. Air Force). U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Solomon, 18th Medical Support Squadron NCO in charge of microbiology, unloads blood samples from a centrifuge at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jan. 31, 2019. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks, U.S. Air Force)

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Clinical labs across the Military Health System – and the staff who operate them – play a vital role in early detection of illnesses, diagnosis and treatment of diseases like cancer, diabetes or heart disease. 

In fact, studies show about 70% of current medical decisions depend on test results. 

The demands placed on MHS lab workers intensified during the past two years and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“At the peak of the pandemic, most laboratories saw their workload double in some areas,” said Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Aramatou Toure, assistant manager for the Defense Health Agency’s clinical laboratory improvement program. 

“Most laboratories had to re-evaluate their daily operation to address the staff shortage,” she recalled. 

Despite the challenges, lab staffs worked hard to keep pace with the demand and to deliver quality results to support clinicians. 

“The pandemic helped shine the light on the important role and work the laboratory does,” Toure said. “Most people were not aware of the background work performed by the laboratories in the process of patient diagnosis.”  

Moreover, the pandemic made it clear to many people that without the laboratories, clinicians cannot effectively perform their job.  

“The outside world, and other medical professionals were able to appreciate the work laboratories do, and I know that means a lot to the laboratory community,” Toure said. 

Air Force Lt. Col. Marybeth Luna, the director for the Department of Defense Center for Laboratory Medicine Services, already has plans to prepare for the next pandemic. 

“We encourage labs to utilize instrumentation that can analyze COVID, respiratory pathogens and other routine microbiological agents,” she said. 

“It’s very important to have analyzers that can convert from ‘peacetime’ uses as well as public health emergency responses. This ensures that labs always have on-site, emergency response capabilities as well as routine lab support,” Luna said. 

Every year, the last full week of April is observed as Medical Laboratory Professionals Week. Known as Lab Week, it began in 1975, and creates an opportunity to increase public awareness and appreciation for laboratory professionals. It is sponsored by the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and coordinated by 17 national clinical laboratory organizations. 

Within military medicine, the laboratory community consists of officers, who serve as lab managers, and enlisted service members, who do the actual testing and lab work. The civilians also do everything from sample collection to management. 

The lab techs “perform a wide variety of laboratory functions in order to provide data required to diagnose, treat, and monitor patient health,” explained Army Master Sgt. Roberto Laanan, the program manager for the Army Clinical Laboratory Improvement Program. 

Military clinical lab technicians and managers keep up with the latest technology via education and instruction. 

“The way we achieve accuracy is through training,” said Air Force Major Tatanya Cooper, deputy chief for the Laboratory Medicine Services. 

“Our military trained laboratorians received a minimum of one year of didactic and hands-on training, two to three years of thorough ‘upgrade’ training, as well as an annual competency training,” Cooper said.

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