SJC evaluating future of medical tech program

Joshua Kellogg
Lucinda Begay, left, and Neldra Castillo participate in a lab Friday during class at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Health care officials in the region are concerned about the possible closure of San Juan College’s medical laboratory technician program as college administrators assess the future of the program.

The college is currently in preliminary discussions with its partners in the community regarding the future of the medical laboratory technician program and is evaluating the program as part of the college’s comprehensive review process, SJC President Toni Pendergrass said.

“We visited with the faculty involved with this program and all the stakeholders. We all want to make an inclusive decision about the future of the program based on the reality of extremely low enrollment and placement,” Pendergrass said.

Medical laboratory technicians are the base-level scientists in a hospital’s laboratory, said Dr. David Davis of Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colo.

Davis — the hospital’s director of laboratory services — said the technicians perform a wide range of tests on body fluids to confirm a doctor’s diagnosis or provide a new diagnosis for a patient.

After talking to Pendergrass and Barbara Ake, the college's vice president for learning, Davis feels the program is being considered for closure, and it could impact hospitals in the Four Corners.

“That’s our local source for recruiting,” Davis said. “It’s hard to recruit from outside the area.”

Neldra Castillo works on a class project Friday at San Juan College in Farmington.

Davis said medical laboratory technician programs across the country typically have low enrollment, and the program is one of the first cut as universities and colleges across the country face budget cuts.

Members of the San Juan College board approved a proposed budget of about $51.7 million in April for the 2016-17 school year with about $2.1 million in cuts due to reductions in revenue from enrollment, state funding and the oil and gas market.

The cost of operating the medical laboratory technician program and the low enrollment are factors Ake and Pendergrass cited for why the program is being reviewed.

There are currently nine students enrolled in the program, and the college spends about $37,000 per student to operate the program, according to Pendergrass. The figure does not include costs related to equipment, facilities and student services.

Nisa Bruce, the college’s interim dean for the School of Health Sciences, said enrollment has fluctuated from two students to about eight or nine students.

While discussing the program’s return on investment, Pendergrass said the college receives only 61 cents back for every dollar spent on the program. She added the program needs to have about 10 to 12 students every year in the courses to "break even" or have the revenue match the expenses.

“Right now, we don’t have that in all of our classes,” Pendergrass said.

As part of the program review process, Ake has stopped enrollment in the intro to medical laboratory course.

Darlene John checks a blood sample Friday during a class lab project at San Juan College in Farmington.

If a decision is made to close the program, the college’s board will have to vote on the decision during a meeting, Pendergrass said.

“We are looking at every opportunity to create something that works for our community, where they can still have their work force needs met,” Pendergrass said.

Janelle Schilz-Whinbray, a medical technologist at the San Juan Regional Medical Center, said nearly every lab technician at the hospital graduated from the program at San Juan College.

She said the hospital will be looking to hire more technicians in the future. The average age of the medical laboratory technicians at the hospital is more than 50, and the hospital will have to hire new technicians in the next 10 to 15 years as they retire, Schilz-Whinbray said.

The college is still reviewing its options for the program.

Ake said the college is investigating options for offering medical laboratory technician courses online that could be completed with a student conducting clinical work at a local laboratory.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.