Valerie Neff Newitt
February 2019—When Tania Hong, BS, MT, joined the University of Vermont Medical Center five years ago, as network director of operations for pathology and laboratory medicine, she interviewed all of the supervisors in her laboratory. She asked what they saw as their biggest challenges.
“Every single person said training students and new hires was a large, looming concern,” Hong says. “Every single person. I knew we couldn’t ignore that.”
What came of that is the Lab Preceptor Program, now in its fourth year.
Technologists had to be given the tools they needed to be effective teachers to new hires and students who rotate through labs “and to increase their job satisfaction,” Hong says, “because this aspect of the job is never going away.” Though some medical technology schools in the country put educators into the laboratories in which students do their rotations, Hong notes, that is not the norm in many labs, including UVM Medical Center. “Students are handed over to us,” she says.
Preceptor programs for nurses are common, Hong says, but she was unable to find a similar program for laboratories. So four years ago she undertook the process of creating one. With a green light from UVM Medical Center administration and support from laboratory colleagues, Hong re-appropriated hours from various other positions in the lab and consolidated those hours into a full-time position for a laboratory educator who would help develop and run the new Lab Preceptor Program.
The first person to lead the program, Katrina Moreau, MAT, MLS, had previous teaching experience and knew there were various learning styles. She researched how learning varies from person to person and how teaching can and must be adapted to each person’s learning style. That understanding has become the heart of the program.
While Hong says teaching experience is a plus for the lab educator who leads the program, it is not a requirement. “The most important thing is to find someone passionate about teaching others, then give them the resources they need, possibly a temporary consultant at the program’s onset, to provide necessary materials.”The lab educator is now Charles Gilroy, BS, who had worked previously in the medical center’s phlebotomy department. He was reluctant initially to take the position. “I had worked in patient care my entire career and was afraid I might be bored doing the same thing every day.” But his days are varied, he says. He teaches program workshop modules, interfaces with nursing educators, acts as a conduit between nursing and the laboratories, and provides educational outreach to nearby schools.
The Lab Preceptor Program consists of a four-hour workshop offered at various times of the day to accommodate most of the staff. “Ideally employees can take the training as part of their work shift,” so no overtime is needed. “There’s a get-to-know-you period,” Gilroy says, “followed by three main modules in which we concentrate on learning styles, communication, and assessment.”
Learning styles are taught using the VARK Modalities model (visual, auditory, read-write, kinesthetic). Students may skew more to one modality than the others, though overlap is expected. As workshop leader, Gilroy uses a VARK quiz to first determine participants’ learning styles, and to teach them how to do the same with the people they will eventually train at the bench.
“Visual learners need to see how a task is done first, often with help from graphs or diagrams, before being taught how to do it. Auditory learners listen intently to spoken directions and may do well at lectures or roundtables. Read-write learners prefer text-based instructions and take copious notes, and kinesthetic learners tend to learn by doing and are hands-on. Once we determine the style of learning,” Gilroy says, “we can adapt teaching methods to fit it.”
The program’s communication module stresses the need for clear and continual communication of tasks, clinical objectives, and expectations for both trainer and learner. The assessment module explores formal and informal assessments and trains participants to give feedback to learners appropriately. “Participants are advised to set aside 15 minutes at the end of the day to discuss what went well and what didn’t during the learner’s shift. We also suggest that participants learn the learner’s preferred method for getting feedback—written, oral—so that we can cater to their needs,” Gilroy says. “I tell workshop participants that the people you are training may work beside you very soon. We want to treat them as peers and with respect right from the beginning.”Robin Brown, BS, MT(ASCP), of the microbiology lab at UVM Medical Center, was one of the program’s early participants, and she transitioned quickly to becoming a volunteer lab educator. “Originally there had been a call for volunteers to help develop the program as well as teach it, and that was exciting for me,” she says.
At the start, she knew nothing about the different learning styles. “I learned to pick up on even subtle cues that learners give off about their learning style. For example, visual learners often use the expression, ‘I see what you mean,’ while read-write learners may ask you to pause so they can make a list of things described. Auditory learners tend to make intense and sincere eye contact as they listen. The preceptor training taught me that understanding individual learning styles is crucial to being able to get the information to learners in a way that they can assimilate it and successfully learn their job duties.”
Jessica Mesec, MLT(ASCP)CM, who works in the hematology lab, says the Lab Preceptor Program taught her important basics such as how to manage time when dividing it between training others and her own lab duties, how to manage the expectations of trainees, and how to tease out the preferred learning styles of those she instructs. But for her, the most exciting revelation was unexpected and has everything to do with job satisfaction.
“I eventually decided to become a volunteer teacher in the program and I wanted to learn more. I started to research learning, which helped me own the material. When I started teaching students and peers, it was empowering—I had the tools I needed—and I felt encouraged to do more educational outreach. I found out I love teaching and speaking to people outside and inside the lab. Now I realize my own skills and assets and am completely comfortable with training. Education is a new area that I can embrace within my chosen field.”
Alexander Paci, BS, MT(ASCP)CM, whose job is to help oversee point-of-care testing, trains new hires who are expected to do lab testing but who have no lab experience and, in some cases, no medical training. “One newly licensed nursing assistant said her prior job was at a bank,” he says. “I realized I needed to figure out some way to help her absorb the information she needed to get, without overburdening her. Understanding her learning style and her rate of learning—insights about visual cues taught in the Lab Preceptor Program—proved invaluable. I was able to deliver information in a manner and speed that she could digest.”While participating in the Lab Preceptor Program is not mandatory, it is a requirement for advancing on the career ladder. Hong hopes that in time all staff members will partake of the education, and making it mandatory at some point would be preferable, in her view. “There is a lot of discussion around whether it should be required or not,” Hong says. “I go back to the core mission of our organization: We are an academic medical center and we all teach. It is totally reasonable to make this a requirement.”
Even those employees who, Brown says, “hate to teach and straight up admit they don’t want to do it” come out of the Lab Preceptor Program more accepting of it. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘At last I have something to go on, a plan, a path. Now I know what is expected of me and what the clinical objectives are for the students. Now I have a direction.’ And those who are not teaching averse leave the workshops saying, ‘It was a great experience; I learned something new.’”
That “something new,” says Mesec, is a shift in perspective toward the learner. “The narrative has changed entirely. We used to say things like, ‘Man, I just don’t know why John doesn’t get this content.’ Now we say, ‘How can I communicate this material more effectively to John?’ Now there is empathy toward the learner. We don’t jump to conclusions about a person’s ability just because they don’t understand something right away. We find a more effective way to present the information to that person. It’s personalized education.”
Hong says the curriculum probably will change over time as laboratory medicine evolves. Gilroy agrees: “We, as a field, hold jobs that require continual learning. If we can change the culture to one in which learning is ongoing and fun, it can only be to our benefit.”
For Hong, the program is everything she envisioned, and more. It has not only fulfilled the objective of providing training tools to laboratory staff but also helped to bring the lab “out of the basement,” she says, and into the mainstream of the medical center’s educational flow. And it has helped to break down silos between laboratory sections, all of which are coming together in the program’s workshops.
“They talk, interact, have a common experience, and get to know each other outside of the technical work. They connect,” Hong says. “Furthermore, the program has helped us to go into the community; we have a purpose and a focus that we can take into schools to help promote lab careers. And we are opening the eyes of people in the lab to expanded opportunities. Graduating from med tech school does not mean you must be tied to a bench all the time.”
Valerie Neff Newitt is a writer in Audubon, Pa. For more information, contact Tania Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org.