By Mark Evertz
Photo: Maria Aquilar, left, and Joanne Alexander prepare blood specimens in the new histology course at the Cascade Campus
While not of the caliber of a blood supply shortage or a 10-car pile up on I-5, Portland Community College and six area hospitals recently joined forces to handle a medical emergency of sorts.
Industry-wide, cell and tissue handlers, known as histologists, have been in short supply over the last decade. In the last five years, that qualified applicant shortage has taken on drought-like proportions. National statistics, according to one local medical professional in the field, reveal that for every 11 histology positions available, there is only one qualified person to fill the job.
Similar realities are facing hospitals right here in Oregon.
Sick of dealing with the lack of qualified personnel seeking out jobs in histology, Kaiser Permanente took the first proactive step to buck the current employment trend in the field. Dixie McFadden , manager of the histology lab at Kaiser, placed a telephone call to PCC Medical Lab Technology Chair Terry Emmons asking what he would need to teach already medical-minded students the minute details of cell and tissue study.
"This was so important that we just needed to make this happen," said McFadden. "We needed to make the histology program work for us locally."
Emmons responded with a laundry list of what would be necessary, namely instructors and the money to hire them. Kaiser answered the challenge by loaning out their own histology staff to teach the prospective students. When McFadden circulated word of this effort to others in the medical community, several other hospitals were all too eager to join in the histology training program.
Currently, Kaiser, Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), Legacy Health Systems, Sisters of Providence Health Care System, Veteran’s Medical Center and Willamette Falls Hospital now either provide funding, teaching space, instructors or all of the above for the neophyte program. Histology professionals are now doubling as PCC instructors and getting paid for their time, by their own hospitals.
A call for help to Portland Community College was answered; relief arrived soon thereafter.
"Within probably four months we got all of the instructors together, the curriculum developed and the course started," said a still somewhat amazed Emmons. "Fortunately, because the medical community helped us with funding, we were able to have histologists teach the program. We wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise."
At the beginning of the program spring term, 16 students embarked on the two-term histology course. These students either have Medical Lab Technician (MLT) certificates or extensive training in chemistry and biology before trying their hands at histology. Some students were scooped up for jobs at the hospitals before the end of their first term in the program.
"They are great students," said Sharon Cheney, histology instructor and supervisor of anatomic pathology lab at Veteran’s Hospital in Portland. "They are very interested and very intelligent.
"In some cases they know more than I do," admitted Cheney, a veteran of 30 years in histology.
Students tackle all the course work in classrooms and labs at the PCC Cascade Campus. They also do on-site lab work at OHSU or Veteran’s Hospital and cell analysis work at both locations. All this intensive training is geared toward preparing students for a career of processing tissue or cells removed during surgeries or autopsies. Not glamorous work, but, in the fight against cancer, a vital role. Those prepped and processed samples are then passed along to pathologists for in-depth examinations for cancer and other abnormalities.
"(The class) gives students invaluable experience," said Cheney. "They get exposed to so much more than being in the classroom on just one piece of equipment."
Emmons said he was glad to provide the help to hospitals facing an employment crisis, but was reluctant to toot PCC’s horn for coming to the rescue. He said the histology program wouldn’t have materialized into a feasible course without the medical community banding together with the college.
"This was a real cooperative effort (between) the medical community and PCC," he said.
To find out more about the histology training program through Portland Community College, contact Emmons directly at 978-5671.