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Minnesota West’s Medical Lab Tech program grads in high demand

Alex Stanley (left) and Danny Penaredondo conduct a lab project Friday in the Minnesota West Luverne Educational Center for Health Careers' Medical Lab Technician program. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)1 / 4
Medical Lab Technician students Katia Suarez (left) and Kathy Richmond look at a vial to determine test results during a lab exercise Friday at the Minnesota West Luverne Center. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)2 / 4
Blanca Lopez-Rodriguez looks at a vial of liquid during a lab exercise Friday at the Minnesota West Luverne Center. She is in the college's Medical Lab Technician program. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)3 / 4
Dr. Rita Miller (near top left with students) developed the Medical Lab Tech program for Minnesota West Community & Technical College. The program began in 1994 at the Pipestone Campus, was on the Worthington campus for a while and is now based at the Luverne Education Center for Health Careers. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)4 / 4

LUVERNE — At a time when many high school students are eyeing a four-year college degree, Minnesota West Community and Technical College instructor Rita Miller is determined to change the mindset and get today’s teens thinking about a two-year degree with virtually guaranteed job placement in the health care industry.

Miller developed the Medical Laboratory Technician program at Minnesota West in 1994. Initially offered at the Pipestone campus, then in Worthington, it has called the Luverne Educational Center for Health Careers home for nearly a decade. In two years, students can graduate with an Associate of Applied Science Degree, and Miller is seeing 100 percent job placement. Minnesota West enrollment in the MLT program typically ranges from seven to 15 students per year.

As the college’s MLT Program Director, Miller is teaching 11 first-year students this semester, with eight second-year students in the midst of clinicals before their June graduation. Half of her second-year students have already accepted jobs in the region.

“Our big problem is getting students into (the program) because they don’t know what it is — they don’t know what we do,” Miller said.

A medical laboratory technician — considered a “hidden profession” — is trained in infection control, hospital and lab organization and phlebotomy. Technicians study blood cells for diagnosis of such things as anemia and leukemia, and also study bacteria, molds and yeast, viruses and parasites. They conduct tests on blood samples for kidney function, blood sugar, cholesterol, hormones, thyroid and cardiac and cancer markers.

“I think the fun thing is we do 70 percent of the diagnosing,” Miller said, calling MLTs problem solvers. “People who really want to be in a medical field but don’t want to do patient care, this is a good fit for them. We may draw blood or do an EKG, but mostly we’re running tests and analyzing specimens.”

There is high demand for MLTs, not just in the region, but across the country.

“Baby Boomers are retiring and we’re getting more technology — we just need more people,” Miller explained. “We’re getting more lab test requests and expanding into molecular diagnosis. It’s an expanding field.”

To boost enrollment in the MLT program, Miller participates in numerous career fairs and does presentations at high schools.

“We do a Scrub Camp, where students come in and go through all the different programs we have here in Luverne,” she said. “It’s totally hands-on — they run a machine, type blood, look at some bacteria and we run an influenza test.”

The camp is offered each fall for high school students.

Miller said students with high academics are particularly needed in the field, and a strong interest in science, chemistry, biology and math is crucial.

“It’s pretty rigorous — it’s medical, so it’s not an easy program,” she said, adding that students who earn their AAS degree can always go on for a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree if they choose. Conversely, she has had students with a bachelor’s degree — typically in biology — enroll in the MLT program.

MLT students are required to do clinicals. The unpaid, on-the-job training can often lead to a job post-graduation.

“The hospitals around here take students from January to early June,” said Miller, who works with about a dozen hospitals in the tri-state area who provide her students with clinical training.

Miller, having earned her doctoral degree, also works in a lab setting for Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, S.D., in addition to leading the MLT and Phlebotomy programs at the Luverne Center.

“I keep up my lab skills,” she said. “It’s beneficial to both instruct and be in the career as well.”

Miller said the laboratory setting for the MLT program at the Luverne Center is ideal. Located in a former hospital building, the old lab and physical therapy room were repurposed for laboratory space.

“It’s just perfect,” Miller said.

Over the years, the instruments have been updated, either through the purchase of items or acceptance of donations from area hospitals.

“I also get expired supplies they can no longer use,” Miller said.

Her department recently received a $29,000 Perkins grant, which was used to purchase a microscan-autoscan machine to identify bacteria and antibiotics susceptibility. This was the second Perkins grant the MLT program has received. The first grant was used to purchase a blood typing machine that also screens for antibodies using the gel method.

In addition to leading the MLT program for Minnesota West, Miller serves on the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences Board and travels across the country to inspect MLT programs for accreditation.

“I’m very proud of what we have here,” she added.

In addition to the MLT program, the Luverne Center offers degree programs in radiologic technology, surgical technology, medical assistant and phlebotomy on site, as well as liberal arts classes and customized training.

The Luverne Center will host campus tours and a pizza party from 3 to 4:30 p.m. May 2 for individuals interested in learning more about the campus’ programs and medical-related career options. This week marks Medical Laboratory Technician Week, a time to recognize people who work as MLTs or are working toward a career as a lab tech.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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