We are all familiar with the ASCLS phrases "promotion of the profession" and "providing the face of the laboratory." For most of us, this may conjure images of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (NMLPW), participating in a local science festival, or inviting a group of high school or college students to tour the laboratory.
All too often, we forget about our hospital colleagues outside of the laboratory--physicians, nurses, unit clerks, and everyone in between. We as laboratorians are usually content with the behind the scenes stereotype, preferring the anonymity inherent to our profession. Yet, we must also be mindful of the need to educate and inform those with whom we work every day about the critical nature of laboratory testing and the highly qualified people behind the test result.
Perhaps you've even said to yourself before: "they know nothing about what we do here." Creating an outreach initiative such as an Ambassador program is a great way to promote our profession, educate and inform, as well as build and strengthen communication between the laboratory and hospital staff.
Several years ago, the administration of our laboratory saw a need for a more direct approach in handling questions, concerns and issues within the critical care nursing units. Most issues were dealt with in a reactive way, usually after they happened either over the phone or through an incident report.
There wasn't a way for us to directly approach the staff with these issues. The Nursing Unit Ambassador Program was developed so that we could find a more proactive way to address these concerns, before they became major problems. There existed a chasm of communication, and we sought to bridge that gap in a positive, effective way that would build stronger relationships between the laboratory and the nursing units--to bring us together as people, coworkers and colleagues. If we can answer questions directly, in person, and on the spot, we may be able to prevent minor misunderstandings from becoming major issues in the future.
One of the key first steps was to develop a training program for those who wanted to participate. Remember, we are not accustomed to being front and center! Furthermore ambassadors were going to find themselves handling questions that might be unfamiliar. Each ambassador goes through a detailed training program that helps develop their ability to effectively answer questions, understand policy and procedure, and to convey that information in a respectful, courteous, and professional manner.
Eliminating the "us vs. them" mentality is among the first things learned. Once this central tenet is accepted, it is much easier to wash away any negative feelings, stereotypes and past frustrations and focus on teamwork, communication and open dialogue. A multidisciplinary approach makes much more sense and the ambassador is ready to make the transition to being a viable member of the healthcare team. Ambassadors are trained to think of issues brought to their attention not as problems but as opportunities for all to learn and grow.
Growth and Development
What started as a small initiative within the Core Laboratory has grown to 14 ambassadors across three shifts and four laboratories (Core, Microbiology, Transfusion Medicine, and Molecular Genetics), all while maintaining a simple, grass-roots style.
We conduct rounds on 11 critical care units including the emergency department, as well as two step-down/intermediate care units. An ambassador visits the unit at least once a week for an in-person and informal, face-to-face conversation among the nurses--making the laboratory available, accessible and increasing the visibility of our profession. The face-to-face aspect is vitally important, because it removes the anonymity associated with a phone conversation.
Each ambassador is assigned one or two units, where they work to build strong relationships with the nursing staff, and cultivate open and honest communication. We can then work together towards a common goal of improved patient care. Detailed post-round reports created by the ambassador are reviewed by the administration to ensure timely, accurate feedback to the units and to identify any need for additional follow-up.
Due to the success of the program, nurse managers from different critical care units have actively sought to be added to the ambassador rounds. We've also found that when given this opportunity, the nursing staff is very eager to learn about the laboratory and to work together on our common issues.
We always encourage the nurses to visit the laboratories to see firsthand the complex operations. Before a tour group enters the lab I always ask one question: "what do you think of when I say 'the lab'"? The usual responses ensue-"a place where samples go," "the ones who always call us with sample problems," "the ones who hemolyze our samples," "I don't know." The list goes on, with mostly negative perceptions.
Near the end, when we have toured the major labs explaining what each section does, meeting the technologists as they work, discussing the education and expertise of the people, and answering questions throughout, I ask the same question again. The answers are vastly different-"busy," "bigger than I imagined," "advanced," "we had no idea," "there is a lot more to the lab than I thought," "we have a new appreciation for what goes on here," and my favorite: "wow."
The initial perceptions change dramatically, and the group leaves with a much better impression of the laboratory and the highly qualified staff. Some units have even begun encouraging new graduates to visit the lab during training.
Being an Ambassador
Having been an ambassador for the last 4 years, it has been exciting to see the program grow and to see the benefits first hand. It is interesting to learn about the services each unit performs and the different patient populations.
Being a laboratory ambassador isn't for everyone--it can be difficult sometimes. But for those highly motivated, creative people who might excel in such a program, the rewards are astronomical in terms of personal and career growth.
As an ambassador, you'll have the opportunity to educate your colleagues about the laboratory--who we are and what we do, refine your communication skills, network with other healthcare professionals, and learn what goes on inside the nursing unit. You'll have an opportunity to work directly with nursing staff, to answer questions and proactively introduce the laboratory to someone that may not otherwise get the experience.
The ambassador program works because we choose to proactively promote ourselves. It works because we seek to serve as an active member of the healthcare team, educate one another, and "provide the face of the laboratory" to our colleagues.
J. Eric Stanford is Nursing Unit Ambassador Program coordinator; senior medical technologist, Automated Chemistry Systems; and supervisor, Core Weekend, Core Laboratory, McLendon Clinical Laboratories, University of North Carolina Hospitals, Chapel Hill, NC.