When Christine Bean, PhD, MBA, MT(ASCP), started in 2021 as APHL’s Chief Learning Officer, public health laboratory directors were under tremendous pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic was still going strong even as other testing and surveillance needs ramped back up. Staff were overworked and tired. And, following a wave of retirements and leadership changes, many laboratory directors were relatively new to their positions.
One of Bean’s first priorities in her new role was to revitalize the new laboratory director orientation, last offered in May 2017. She herself had participated in the program in 2005, early in her stint as director of the New Hampshire Public Health Laboratory, and she knew how valuable such training could be for someone stepping into a leadership role.
“Some of these new leaders have been in public health for years,” Bean said. “But now as a laboratory director, they have new responsibilities where they really need training to be prepared.”
Bean wanted to build off the previous conference-based model and create a more comprehensive framework. She started by pulling together a planning group, including several newer directors. With support from the Division of Laboratory Systems at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the group shaped a novel yearlong program combining monthly virtual meetings and a few in-person gatherings, structured around priority topics, such as strategic planning, workforce management and health equity.
Each new director brings their own background expertise but may be unfamiliar with some aspects of running a laboratory, Bean noted, such as navigating regulations, compliance and accrediting requirements; acquiring and budgeting funds; and overseeing biological and radiological safety. The orientation helps them quickly get up to speed in less familiar areas and, importantly, identify existing expertise within their own laboratories and within the national laboratory system to know where to turn in specific situations.
“We’re being really thoughtful about the topics people want to learn about and the best way to deliver that information,” Bean said. For example, they plan to present information about select agents in a webinar to make it available for a broader audience, such as relevant laboratory staff.
The first cohort of the new orientation was open to all new directors and deputy directors who started in their roles since January 2020. More than 60 participants from all over the country met online for their first session in October 2022, including 52 APHL member laboratory directors or assistant directors representing 25 state public health laboratories (public health, environmental health and agriculture) and 20 local public health laboratories (city, county and territorial).
The meetings to date have featured expert speakers as well as time for substantial discussion as a group. “They want to hear from each other,” Bean said. “Best practices about how certain situations might have been handled, or how people advocate for funding and other support for their laboratories—it’s a lot of learning from each other.”
The participants gathered in Atlanta in late January for a multi-day agenda, including professional training on resiliency and mental health to help leaders support their staff, continued discussion of workforce succession planning, and a session on the data modernization initiative. Attendees had the opportunity to meet with key partners at CDC and learn about strategic communications, which participants identified as a priority need. “As a laboratory director, you’re a scientist, an administrator, a manager—and now, a communicator to the public and to the media,” Bean said, which few—if any—directors have had training in. “There you are, with the microphone in front of your face, and you need to be prepared to think on your feet and know what to say and what not to say.”
The team is compiling a variety of resources and created a new directors’ ColLABorate site to provide a dedicated forum for ongoing discussion, asking questions and sharing experiences. Such interactions and relationships can be just as valuable as the formal curriculum.
“Our goal is to help them become a strong network of new laboratory directors, where they can support each other,” Bean said. “In a state system, as a laboratory director, many times you’re kind of on your own.” Regional consortia, local partners and peer networks are all key connections for finding resources and information.
“There’s so much enthusiasm around this at APHL,” Bean said—to the point that she’s hearing interest in refresher programs that more experienced directors can take every few years. “These directors are so excited to have the opportunity to be learning together.”