Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pima College medical-tissue program in jeopardy

[Source: Dale Quinn, Arizona Daily Star] - Pima Community College could scrap its program in histotechnology — a field that involves studying tissue under a microscope — and that possibility has some medical officials worried that a shortage of technicians could delay patient diagnoses.

The five-year-old program, seen as a valuable source of much-needed laboratory technicians, trains students in how to prepare slides with thinly sliced tissue samples that can be examined to diagnose disease.

Histology technicians are used by the medical and veterinary fields, as well as for research for private industry.

"We've kind of become dependent on the people coming out of the Pima College program because we're always on the lookout for qualified histotechnologists," said Dr. David Henley, medical director for the Northwest Medical Center's laboratory. The need, Henley said, is heightened as the technicians are lured from hospital labs to higher-paying jobs doing research for private companies.

The future of the program, which is based at Pima's West Campus at 2202 W. Anklam Road, hasn't been decided. It hinges on the ability to find a qualified director, said college spokesman Dave Irwin.

The program is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Services, which requires it to have a program director who is nationally certified in histotechnology, or, if the program director is not certified, there must be a certified education coordinator who is an employee or working in a documented contractual relationship.

To meet that requirement, the college has "patched it together with part-time people," said Louis Albert, president of Pima Community College's West Campus. But college administrators think the program deserves a full-time director and, so far, a yearlong search has been fruitless, he said.

A candidate for the position must have a bachelor's degree and certification from the American Society for Clinical Pathology, Irwin said. The salary ranges from $40,000 to $50,000 depending on experience and education, he said.

If Pima Community College can't fulfill the necessary accreditation requirements, the program will be in jeopardy, Albert said.

It's also currently under program review, in which campus officials look at enrollment levels, financial viability and employment opportunities for graduates. All low-enrollment, high-cost programs are periodically put under review, and the histology program is one of those, Albert said.

"There is an enrollment issue, although we accept that it's never going to be a large program," Albert said. Still, the main concern for the college has been the inability to find a full-time director, he said.

There are five students already enrolled to begin the two-year program in the fall, and more students may have been accepted into the program who haven't registered, Irwin said. The college will provide the necessary faculty and classes to teach those students, Irwin said. Typically 15 to 20 students are enrolled in the program, he said.

But the question of whether the program will accept new students after the fall semester remains, Irwin said.

One recent graduate, Kristin Sweetser, 29, said she was stunned when she heard from other students that the program might get canceled. Sweetser is now a histotechnologist at Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley.

"It's not good news," she said. "I'm actually looking to move out of state, and when I'm looking and applying in different places they want you to have an associate's degree along with the certification."

Graduates from Pima Community College's program have their associate degrees and, because the program is accredited, the ability to become certified by American Society for Clinical Pathology.

Both factors are often a requirement for finding a job, Albert said.

The concern over losing the program is serious enough that surgical pathology managers from the University Medical Center sent a letter, dated June 11, to Pima Community College administrators and its board of governors appealing that they keep the program.

"The PCC histology technician program has always produced well-founded student graduates that are sought after," the letter says. "UMC has hired one and as we expand we would like to hire more."

Ventana Medical Systems, which develops technology for use in slide-based diagnosis of cancer and infectious disease, also relies on histotechs, and officials there have voiced concerns about losing graduates from PCC.

Using tissue samples selected by pathologists, the histotechnologists slice the specimens to microscopic proportions and stain them with substances that make it possible to see differences in cell structure.

Their technical abilities play a vital role in the medical process, and losing the histology program at Pima College could create a crisis situation in a doctor's ability to diagnose illness promptly, said Jim Pond, UMC's histopathology supervisor.
The demand for histology technicians will only increase in coming years as those currently in the field get older and retire, Pond said.

"For a while Tucson enjoyed the ability to hire qualified people (locally), and pretty soon that's not going to be the case" if PCC cancels the program, he said.

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