As you may have read in an earlier post, I am a regional clinical chemist with Alberta Health Services in Edmonton, Canada. I enjoy what I do very much and think it is a very good fit for who I am. I feel particularly fortunate to have come across this path because I happened to do so by chance and relatively late in my career. Thinking back, I could have easily ended up with a career that was less suited to my interests and personality.

I didn't know anything about clinical chemistry for most of my life. In my early years I was drawn toward veterinary medicine but then as an undergraduate student I changed my major to chemistry. At one point I toyed with the idea of changing my major again, this time to pharmacology, but decided against this in order to complete my studies in a reasonable time. I subsequently went on to do a PhD with my thesis work focusing on the structural biology of iron-sulfur clusters. During most of my graduate studies my goal was to become a university professor and do both basic research and teaching. My thesis work did not go as well as I had hoped, however, and I was eventually forced to seek out other potential career options.  Approximately one year before my thesis defense I attended a career day and it was here that I first heard about clinical chemistry. As you can guess, it had a significant impact on the rest of my life. 

In talking with colleagues and other lab staff, I have come across several individuals who already entered their bachelor or PhD studies with lab medicine in mind. Some were exposed to this field through relatives or friends while others worked with clinical chemists as part of their undergraduate or graduate research projects. The majority of individuals inside & outside of lab, however, tend to have much more limited (or even nonexistent) knowledge of all things lab-related.

To get a better sense of what people know or don't know about our profession, I spent a couple of hours last week asking visitors, healthcare staff, and lab staff at my hospital to fill out a survey about clinical chemists. The survey had three questions:

  1. Have you heard of the term "clinical chemist" or "clinical biochemist"?
    Answers were evenly split between "Yes" and "No".
  2. Where might a clinical chemist work?
    Answers from visitors and healthcare staff included: hospital laboratory, medical ward, pharmacy, pharmaceutical company, chemistry department of a university, outpatient clinic, and ambulance services.
  3. What does a clinical chemist do?
    Answers from visitors and healthcare staff included: overseeing lab testing, carrying out research, teaching university students, interpreting test results, helping doctors interpret test results, helping to design health care policies, developing new medications, developing new lab tests, drawing patient blood, dispensing medication, providing informational services to hospital visitors, and/or "I don't know".

Lab staff were less likely to cite tasks that clinical chemists don't actually do (e.g  draw patient blood). Surprisingly, however, quite a few lab staff failed to list "development of new lab tests" as a responsibility and one individual didn't even include "interpreting test results" in his/her list.     

From my own story and from these questionnaires it's pretty clear that we don't do a very good job of promoting our profession or the field of lab medicine. So why is this important anyway? Are there more important consequences than someone simply thinking that we work in ambulance services?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this entry to find out the answer to these questions ......