Clinical placement can be a lot of fun, but it can also be quite overwhelming. Some people walk into placement with clinical lab experience, while for others, it’s their first time in a clinical environment. Whichever group you fall into, this is your chance to bring together and apply all of your foundational and theoretical knowledge. You’ll spend time observing, practicing, and learning technical and professional skills to prepare you to be an entry-level lab professional. The following tips are a good way to set yourself up for success and get the most out of your clinical rotations.
1. Offer to help out
While most days you’ll be actively practicing technical skills and working with a clinical preceptor, you may also have some downtime. Take this time to offer your assistance with small tasks around the lab. This could be anything from streaking out plates, changing reagents, washing up equipment, or cleaning up a bench. In this way, you’re able to demonstrate your initiative and ability to be a team player while building your confidence and comfort level in a clinical environment. However, before taking on a task, use your discretion to determine whether you should first ask for permission. For example, if you’ve never changed the reagents for an analyzer before, ask someone to demonstrate how to do so and ensure they’re confident that you’ll be able to perform the task properly and safely.
2. Study according to your schedule (study smart)
At the beginning of your clinical placement, you’ll receive a schedule of your rotation such as which bench you’ll be on for the week or which technologist you’ll work with for the day. To make studying for the boards or end-of-rotation exam easier, review notes specific to the area you’ll be rotating through. For example, the night before you’re scheduled on the urinalysis bench, refresh your knowledge on the different characteristics of the microscopic elements you may see. If you’ll be on the respiratory bench, create a quick table of common respiratory pathogens versus commensal flora. Reviewing your notes will improve your recall and make it easier to keep up with the work—especially on busy, high-volume benches!
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
You’re there to learn, so ask the questions you don’t have answers to. For example, if some things are done differently in the lab than what you learned in school, ask why. If you’re working on a differential or an unknown organism and need help, ask someone. When a lab accepts students, the expectation is that the lab staff will support and guide your learning. While it can sometimes feel like your questions are too simple or that you should already know the answer—it’s important to clarify any misunderstandings or gaps you may have. If not, you risk losing the opportunity to correct or improve important skills.
4. Recognize boundaries
Some staff are more comfortable with students than others. For example, when working with one technologist, they may let you perform the assay start to finish while they supervise, while another technologist may only let you do the preparation before they perform the rest. Recognize that these differences are a reflection of their individual boundaries and not necessarily of your abilities. For technologists with stricter boundaries, take the time to clarify your role before you begin a task. That way, you reduce the risk of crossing their boundaries and help them build confidence in you as a student. In general, if they’re in the middle of a highly dexterous task, it’s best not to break their concentration.
5. Bring a small notebook
During your clinical placement, you’ll learn many things worth jotting down for later use, such as an easy way to remember something, or a completely new concept. For example, write down the blood gas reference ranges so you have a quick way of double-checking them. Or if you come across a unique sample, write down the workup process in case you encounter something similar in the future. For example, if you were looking at a sputum Gram stain and noticed beaded Gram-positive bacilli, the technologist may add Modified Thayer Martin and buffered charcoal yeast extract plates. This could save time on the workup later on if the organism turns out to be Nocardia sp. If you’re hired by your clinical placement site, you’ll be able to refer to your notes to make training that much easier.
If there’s something you really want to do or learn, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Remember that this is your education and opportunity to explore everything that the lab has to offer. And even if you cannot actively participate in an activity, you can observe it. For example, if you ask to section a muscle tissue in the cryostat, the technologist could say yes or may only let you watch and then help them stain the tissue section. If you haven’t yet seen a certain sample or assay, ask someone to go through the procedure or process with you. Advocating for your own education will demonstrate initiative and passion to the lab staff, which can put you in a great position to be hired.
As a student, clinical placement is an integral part of your medical lab education. Your goal should be to not only improve your technical skills but also build on your professional skills. Part of this education is pushing yourself to be active and engaged throughout your rotations. Making the most of your experience will set you up for future success in your career.