Medical laboratory science overhaul

Students in a lab setting

Hands-on training crucial to master emerging technologies, says director

By Sasha Roeder Mah

With big data, artificial intelligence and precision health making strides in medical research and practice, the University of Alberta's Medical Laboratory Science program is in the midst of major changes to ensure the professionals coming out of its program are ready to hit the ground running.

The four-year undergraduate degree, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018, sees an annual intake of 29 students seeking both certification as a medical laboratory technologist and the enhanced theoretical knowledge that comes with having earned a degree. It's the only degree- granting program of its kind in Western Canada, and director Lisa Purdy wants to see it grow.

Massive change is ahead in this field. "With the way technology is going, we need to be developing lab professionals who will be change agents, and who can help other health professionals manage the new technology," she says.

To get ahead of the demand, Purdy is creating a new master's degree in Medical Laboratory Science. In the process of working its way through university governance, the graduate program is so ahead of the curve, it will "create a professional that Alberta Health Services may not yet even have a job description for."

Launching a master's program necessitated an overhaul of the undergraduate degree as well, a process Purdy welcomes as a chance to analyze and shift the desired program outcomes to better reflect current U of A focuses such as ethics and community outreach. An example of this is the recent elimination of the upper quota on the number of Indigenous students admitted to the Medical Laboratory Sciences program.

"We need to be socially accountable as health professionals; we need to train our students to be more culturally aware", says Purdy.

The technical program's focus has always been on making sure students are prepared to meet national certification criteria. Purdy says that won't change, but the best health professionals of the future will also be intent on serving, giving back and engaging in the community. A professionalism course will be offered throughout the program's three years, with opportunities to explore what being an ethical and engaged member of the community looks like. Purdy is also exploring a future option for a rural rotation to address underserved community needs.

It's in the final undergraduate year that the most sweeping curriculum changes appear, addressing the emerging technologies learners need to master. A series of one-credit courses-offered over three weeks online and one weekend hands-on in the lab-focus on advanced training in processes such as mass spectrometry and flow cytometry, neither of which are new technologies but are continually being called into action in new and different ways. "We have been teaching mass spec for years," clarifies Purdy, "but most of it has been didactic. Now we want our students to get their hands on those instruments and become really proficient at using them, to address the growing need in clinical service."

Because the modules are mostly online, they'll be accessible not only to students in the undergraduate program, but also-in partnership with the Faculty of Extension-to professionals looking to advance their career development. This shift to online learning and making learning more accessible to non-degree students is brand new for the program and a necessity to ensure practising technologists keep up their professional development.

The proposed MSc in Laboratory Medicine & Pathology with Specialization in Medical Laboratory Science-which Purdy hopes to see launch in the fall of 2022-goes even further to ensure students enter their profession ready to embrace its fast pace of change. Purdy has proposed for the MSc four areas of specialization that reflect current and future needs: Bioinformatics & Molecular Diagnostics; Laboratory Leadership; Research & Development and Laboratory Utilization & Applied Statistics.