Clinical laboratory practitioners working with sophisticated and expensive diagnostic equipment in busy hospital settings provide a crucial service during all stages of patient care.
While good for patients and health care professionals, the fast pace of this environment puts a premium on the time available for onsite training of future clinical laboratory specialists.
A two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seeks to address this issue through the development of effective, affordable and sustainable education software targeting medical laboratory science programs nationwide.
Mary Ann McLane, professor of medical laboratory sciences at the University of Delaware, is serving as an expert education consultant for the “eClinic: An Innovative Technology for Clinical Laboratory Sciences Education” grant project.
The project will develop 30 student learning modules featuring computer-based medical laboratory science information along with high-quality 3-D animated simulations and virtual laboratories for use in a classroom setting to study standard curricula, McLane said.
“The modules will provide access to clinical instrumentation and critical thinking experiences expected of someone who is becoming a medical laboratory scientist,” McLane said. “For a variety of reasons, this equipment is beyond the resources of most college and university programs to provide.”
The technology, to be developed by the Athena Group of Gainesville, Florida, in close collaboration with three universities, will deliver authentic clinical laboratory educational activities using virtual wet labs and advanced, embedded learning strategies to better prepare students for professional practice.
Richard Ledbetter, director of technologies at the Athena Group, is principal investigator for the grant, which runs through May 2017.
Colleagues on the grant project include Marcia Firmani, assistant professor and director of the program in medical laboratory sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Mathumathi Rajavel, associate professor in the medical technology program in the School of Medicine at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
“I was recruited in 2013 through a recommendation by the faculty at Morgan State University, where the first phase of the project to create a module in mass spectrometry was centered,” McLane said. “This involved creating multiple pages, including a description of the instrumentation components, an exercise for students to perform, assessment questions to determine competency and a script for the entire module.”
McLane is developing five student-focused modules and five faculty-focused modules for the second phase of the project. The modules deal with clinical lab testing done in hospital laboratories but for which it may be difficult to provide the actual instrumentation in a student laboratory setting.
“Students and faculty in the 220-plus medical laboratory science programs in this country will be able to access the eClinic online,” McLane said. “Students will have the opportunity to learn the basics of the instrumentation, or protocols, of the modules.”
Online access to the modules, McLane noted, will enable students to perform assigned tasks to develop familiarity and competency in both how the instrumentation functions and how to evaluate the results generated for calibration – troubleshooting skills – and patient results, connecting data to diagnosis.
The most challenging part, McLane said, was dividing the exercise into individual steps so that Athena animators could translate these into the actual virtual laboratory.
“This virtual laboratory comes complete with pipets, chemical solutions, incubators, instrumentation graphics, calibrators and patients’ samples for the students to test, and includes appropriate scripts to encourage the student or correct the student if the step was not done properly,” McLane said. “An evaluative component to the project will assess the effectiveness of the use of these modules in medical laboratory education programs.”
Bridge between labs, clinical rotations
McLane noted that UD’s medical laboratory sciences program, established in 1949, provides students with a well-equipped testing laboratory.
“Students experience the same kinds of instrumentations and patient testing protocols being done in any of our more than 25 clinical rotation sites,” McLane said. “Available instrumentation in our student laboratories includes flow cytometry and automated bacterial identification.”
Because having instrumentation such as a mass spectrometer in a student lab setting is prohibitively expensive, making eClinic student modules available can help provide a bridge between student labs and clinical rotations, McLane said.
Mass spectrometers are used to measure the molecular weights of individual molecules that have been converted into electrically charged ions. In laboratory settings, they are used to identify molecules such as vitamin D and chemicals associated with clinically-relevant bacteria.
“The modern clinical laboratory in any hospital is a fast-paced environment where it is important to handle multiple tasks at once and be constantly aware of sources for pre-analytical, analytical or post-analytical error in testing,” McLane said. “Clinical lab practitioners also have to handle discrepancies in patient test results when they do not match previous results or the possible diagnosis, and to deliver critical results in a timely manner, always with the patient in mind.”
McLane noted that students, usually in their senior year, visit four clinical rotation sites to put into practice what they have learned in the classroom.
Being confident about the equipment and protocols used in a medical laboratory represents a crucial professional developmental step in the process learned initially as an undergraduate student, McLane said.
“We have faculty with medical laboratory sciences backgrounds teaching the four main clinical lab disciplines of hematology, chemistry, microbiology and blood banking –each of which is a unique body of knowledge unto itself,” McLane said. “Our clinical affiliates consider our students to be very well-prepared.”
The modules also cover topics identified by educator surveys as those that can benefit students because of the additional practice gained beyond the classroom or clinical setting, McLane said.
“The time to teach the background information about the equipment being used is often limited during clinical rotations,” McLane said. “Having a virtual clinical laboratory will help recent graduates in our program to be successful when taking the National Board of Certification exam and enable them to be at the cutting edge of their field when they start their first employment.”
McLane said that eClinic modules can ease the clinical training schedule further by designing them to meet the needs of UD’s clinical affiliates, and, by extension, the patients served by the profession.
“Anything we can do to better prepare our graduates to be competent, cutting edge and successful as practitioners is well worth the time and effort,” McLane said. “The bottom line is that it’s all about the patient.”
About the Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences
UD’s Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences, housed in the College of Health Sciences, offers majors in medical laboratory science, in medical diagnostics and in medical diagnostics with a pre-physician assistant concentration, a minor in medical diagnostics, as well as honors degrees in medical laboratory science and medical diagnostics.
The medical laboratory sciences major prepares students for national certification as medical laboratory scientists through the American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Certification.
The curriculum is a four-year undergraduate, professional program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
In addition to working as clinical professionals, UD medical laboratory sciences graduates are doing research and development, sales and technical consulting. Other professional career paths include medicine and physician assistant.
Currently, more than 50 percent of the medical laboratory scientists employed in Delaware’s medical laboratories are graduates of UD’s program, the only four-year program in the state.
About the Athena Group
Athena is a leading provider of security, cryptography, anti-tamper and signal processing IP cores to many of the world’s largest semiconductor companies, defense contractors and original equipment manufacturers, as well as emerging providers.
Athena technologies enable high-value solutions where security and performance are mission critical ─ defense and aerospace, vehicle safety, networking and communications, satellites, cellular base stations, handsets, the Internet of Things (IoT), and more.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson