Weber State trains Illinois lab techs online

Wednesday , January 22, 2014 - 11:55 AM

Nancy Van Valkenburg, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — A group of northwest Illinois hospitals, concerned about having enough educated and trained lab workers to fill future jobs, has turned to Weber State University for the answer.

The five hospitals of the Northwest Illinois Collaborative now urge employees seeking higher education to take online classes, and earn degrees from WSU’s Medical Laboratory Science department. Clinical lab work and assignments will be conducted working with approved laboratory mentors in the Illinois hospitals where the students already are employed.

“What this does is provide an opportunity for students to still have a fulltime job, and not have to travel for their education,” said Scott Wright, department chairman and professor in WSU’s Medical Laboratory Sciences department. “To take university classes near where they live, students might have to travel to another town or hundreds of miles. This system allows them to study in the lab where they are employed, working with people they know. The students don’t have to lose half a day driving from work to campus. And they can go home and do the online portion in their pajamas if they want.”

Online students pay WSU tuition and fees, but the MLS department waives its $95 application fee, under the partnership agreement. Class texts are available online, as are related videos and student discussion groups. Quizzes, tests and written assignments are taken and turned in online. Final course grades are determined by computer class work and input from the clinical laboratory mentor at the student’s home hospital.

Wright said the Web-based program has been in place since 2000, but this new collaboration marks the first time a non-Utah group of hospitals, in direct competition with each other, banded together to seek an online degree program, and selected WSU. Wright said several Utah hospital chains have made similar arrangements with Weber State.

Individual students have signed up for classes, too, said Julie Kakazu, online coordinator for Weber State’s MLS department.

“We have about 300 students enrolled currently,” Kakazu said. “Most are in Utah or other states, or stationed at U.S. military bases around the world.”

Students can earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s without ever visiting campus, although at least one came to walk at commencement, Kakazu said. Weber State University has one of the largest online programs in the United States, Wright added.

Wright said he doesn’t know specifically why NWIC selected Weber State from the four options it considered, but he does know the group sought an online solution.

“There is a predicted shortage of clinical laboratory technicians,” he said. “A lot of older laboratory technicians are moving toward retirement, and the projections are that there won’t be enough replacements to fill those spots. Any time a laboratory can promote from within, it’s a great opportunity for the hospital and the employee. When workers get degrees they can advance within the lab they are employed in, and get an increase in status and salary.”

NWIC President Julie D. Mann addressed the issue in a group newsletter.

“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12,400 graduates will be needed annually to staff the nation’s medical laboratories,” she wrote. “However, on a national basis, less than half of the necessary laboratory personnel are graduating. We are seeing these shortages become more critical within community health systems that are growing their outreach programs. This collaboration provides our client laboratories with an opportunity to educate laboratory personnel, without taking them away from their work sites.”

Two NWIC employees are already working toward WSU degrees, Kakazu said.

“With this new collaboration, we anticipate more students coming through,” she said. “Lots of people learn about the program through word of mouth. We have people coming to us who work with a program graduate.”

To learn more about the MLS program, visit www.weber.edu/mls.

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or nvan@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.

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