A Southwest Health System official has called for a lobbying effort to pressure San Juan College to continue classes for medical laboratory technicians as the college board begins preliminary discussions about ending the program because of falling enrollment.
San Juan College in Farmington has suspended registration for an introductory MLT course, said Southwest Health Systems lab director David Davis, who is on the advisory committee for the college’s MLT program.
“If they close the program, they’re doing a disservice to the community,” Davis said. “Somebody has to lobby to keep this program open. There’s not enough being done.”
San Juan College President Dr. Toni Pendergrass said there’s no cause for alarm. Only preliminary discussions have taken place, and there are still several meetings that need to occur with stakeholders, students and partners about the future of the program, she said.
The San Juan College Board of Trustees meets Tuesday, June 7, but a discussion on the MLT program won’t be on the agenda for that meeting, Pendergrass said. A decision on whether or not a program would “sunset” — or be cut — would come down to the board of trustees, she said. College officials still plan to meet with the Board of Trustees to discuss the issue, as well as former students, advisory board members and other stakeholders, Pendergrass said.
The decision to suspend registration for the college’s MLT program is based on low enrollment and placement, Pendergrass said. Graduates are having trouble finding jobs, she added.
For lab director Davis, the issue comes down to cost and recruiting and retaining lab technicians. The closest schools that offer similar MLT programs are Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and the University of New Mexico-Gallup campus, he said, and San Juan is a key regional source of qualified lab workers.
He said he currently has two positions open for MLTs at Southwest Health.
“The closing of (the San Juan College program) is concerning because it’s a valuable resource for viable applicants,” Davis said. And if local medical operations can’t find lab workers close to home, they’ll have to contract employees, who are more expensive, he said, and would contribute to health care costs.
Retaining employees is a concern too. There are many qualified job candidates coming from the Philippines, Davis said, but they might not be likely to stay in Southwest Colorado for more than a few years.
He also said that MLT field could soon experience a “dire shortage” as medical laboratory employees retire.
Medical laboratory technicians, or MLTs, typically hold associate’s degrees or certificates and work behind the scenes performing tests in hospital laboratories.
Young people looking to pursue an education in the medical field might be less likely to choose an MLT track than a pharmacy or nursing degree because lab techs work behind the scenes, Davis said. But without lab workers, doctors couldn’t diagnose their patients, he said.
Colleges nationwide are facing budget issues, and with an average of 10 or fewer students, MLT programs are often among the first to be cut, Davis said. But some colleges don’t do enough to promote their programs and recruit students, he said, though advisory board members visit local high schools on their career days to try and promote the MLT program.
Data analysis performed by the college shows that graduates with bachelor’s degrees account for 44 percent of graduates hired in the health sciences fields in the region, compared with 17.2 percent of hired graduates who held associate’s degrees, Pendergrass said.
In 2016, there have been just five total job listings throughout the Four Corners region for medical and clinical laboratory technicians, said Dr. Barbara Ake, San Juan vice president of learning. That region includes Montezuma and La Plata counties in Colorado, San Juan and Rio Arriba counties in New Mexico, Apache County in Arizona, and San Juan County in Utah, Ake added.
The college takes into account the impact and importance of the program, she said. “All our health sciences programs are vital for the community,” Pendergrass said. “We look at our programs across the board to make sure they meet the needs of the community. But it’s also important for us to be mindful of our students and to make sure if they have invested in the program that they are placed in the community.”