The invisible lifesavers
Anna feels sick and goes to her doctor or clinic. She has to wee in a jar and have a sample of blood taken from her arm.
She is admitted to hospital where she is treated with medication and her health progress monitored. After a few days she is well and she is allowed to go home.
If it were that simple, the healthcare system would be elementary, both in structure and in the tasks it faces. Instead, the process involved in medical diagnosis is a lot more complex than it seems to the average patient. Behind the scenes is the engine room where much of the critical work is conducted: the laboratory.
It is here that diagnoses are made from analysis of specimens and samples.
Without those expert analyses, accurate diagnosis is not possible. Without accurate test results, highly qualified specialist clinicians will not be able to assist a patient to better health.
The contribution made by a laboratory technologist or technician is not felt by the patient leaving a hospital. They are pleased with the doctor and the medical staff with whom they came into contact, unaware of the other key medical role players involved in their wellbeing.
National Health Laboratory Services chief executive Sagie Pillay said the anonymity of the laboratory profession was something that needed to change, and fast.
"The average patient makes no connection between the laboratory and the clinician — instead everything is centred round the clinician.
The team of professionals who work in the lab are the unsung heroes of healthcare.
They are never seen by patients and so are not perceived as being any part at all of the healthcare process.
"I'm not convinced that clinicians themselves recognise that pathologists, technologists and technicians play as critical a role as they do in the healthcare team."
The reality, said Pillay, was that not only were the people in laboratories highly trained health professionals (the lead time to produce a fully trained pathologist, for example, is 14 years), but the work they do contributed significantly towards the final outcome for the patient's care and recovery. Without test results, clinicians cannot take treatment to the next level.
Diagnostic laboratory services formed a crucial part of the treatment process, delivering a service that, if conducted accurately and appropriately, reduced healthcare expenditure through reduced hospital stays, reduced inappropriate use of scarce intensive care units, promoted rational drug use and minimised advanced health problems in the patient's health in the long run.
"Spending money on testing to accurately diagnose disease or chronic health conditions achieves early treatment, as opposed to having to spend substantially more on managing the advanced stages of the disease simply because symptoms went ignored or were untested.
"It saves lives and should be seen as an investment rather than an expense. It delivers returns to the patient or the health facility in the form of reduced spend later, as well as better clinical outcomes because of accurate and timeous diagnosis and treatment," said Pillay.
The philosophy behind effective healthcare needed to be the "right result to the right patient at the right time at the right cost," he said.
Laboratory professionals needed to be seen to be part of the healthcare system just like any other specialist in the delivery of patient care.
Recognition for the substantial role they play would invigorate and uplift the laboratory team, engendering pride in their work which ultimately saves lives, he said.
Raising the profile of the laboratory professional would also create the positive effect of attracting and retaining the right people for the job. Making the job of the laboratorian more visible to learners and students was likely to stimulate interest in and curiosity about the profession. If the profession was no longer seen as being in the background, it may well be considered more "sexy", more on the frontline of medical care and more people might consider it as a career of choice, he said.
"Laboratories should be integrated into the school health programme, with mobile labs going to schools to conduct screening for preventable diseases.
"This would not only be a forward-thinking healthcare initiative, but would also be an opportunity to expose laboratory work to the youth as a career option."
Choosing a career in a medical laboratory
Are you suited to a career in a medical lab?
If you are more interested in the science and technology aspect of the medical field than in direct patient care, a medical laboratory job may be for you. Also, if you are comfortable with computers and medical equipment, and show excellent attention to detail, you could be very successful in a medical laboratory role.
What are medical labs and where do you find them?
Some medical labs are housed in large hospitals or clinics. Other medical labs are corporate owned labs that charge medical facilities for processing lab work as an outsourced service. Others may be university or government owned labs that conduct research or analyse specimens for government healthcare providers.
The medical lab as a work environment
Medical laboratories are often well-lit, sterile environments with a lot of high-tech equipment for viewing and analysing microscopic samples of human tissue or bodily fluids.
Working in a medical lab often involves many hours of sitting or standing, peering into microscopes or using biomedical equipment to process slides and specimens.
You may have to wear protective covering such as gloves, goggles, a mask or a lab coat.
Examples of careers in the medical lab
There are a variety of medical lab careers available at a variety of educational levels, from high school graduates, to doctorate level professionals. Salaries vary accordingly.
Some examples include medical lab technician, medical technologist, cytotechnologist, pathologist, phlebotomist, and histotechnician.