Clinical lab doctor: The DNA makeup of the job

“My job every day is figuring out puzzles. We have the challenge of interpreting the results to figure out what they mean.”

By: Mikaila Johns .

Clinical lab doctor Robert Pyatt at Sanford Imagenetics
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As genetic testing becomes more popular today, there’s higher demand for people who have a natural curiosity about their composition. Sanford Imagenetics has added the role of clinical lab doctor (or laboratory director) to its team to test patients’ genetics across the Sanford Health footprint.

What is a clinical lab doctor?

A clinical lab doctor performs tests that detect changes (mutations) in genes that may link to diseases or other illnesses. From these tests, clinical lab doctors can use patient genetics to provide important information for diagnosing, treating and preventing future illnesses.

They find medical significance and data correlation, which allows them to use their judgments on medical evidence from the data to communicate effectively to the appropriate physicians.

At-home tests vs. professional tests

It’s important to understand the differences in the type of genetic testing performed at an institution like Sanford Health versus a DNA take-home test.

The tests performed at a health institution by clinical lab doctors involve high complexity testing. This means multiple tests are completed to get more precise information and results. Clinical lab doctors receive compiled information and then sort and solve potential illnesses and diseases.

“My job every day is figuring out puzzles,” said Robert Pyatt, Ph.D., clinical lab doctor for Sanford Imagenetics. “We have the challenge of interpreting the results to figure out what they mean.”

At-home tests give results that are generally computer-generated, rather than having a doctor look at them. People have associations rather than definitive answers of underlying problems related to illnesses, including genetic diseases when using at-home tests. At-home tests also send results direct to the customer to decide how to use them. Clinical lab doctors, however, send their results to genetic counselors or primary care doctors, so the patient is not interpreting the results on their own.

Becoming a clinical lab doctor

Dedication to medicine and lifelong learning are needed when students are interested in pursuing a career as a clinical lab doctor. Formal education will include a four-year degree in a science-related field followed by a graduate degree then a doctoral degree in a field other than medicine. Once schooling is completed, a fellowship in molecular genetics or cytogenetics (study of chromosomes) is the typical education of clinical lab doctors at Sanford Imagenetics.

Once completing their degree, medical lab doctors go through similar post-doctoral training and board-certified through the same credentialing agency (the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics).

Once becoming a board-certified doctor, ongoing certifications and continuing education are needed. Clinical lab doctors are required to complete a statement of professional verification and attend conferences. The American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics also requires maintenance of certification (MOC), which requires an examination every 10 years.

It’s usually not a student’s original goal to be a clinical lab doctor, but people who are passionate about research and genetics could enjoy this occupation.

“I was going down a research path, studying the skeleton and how it develops in a zebrafish model,” said another Sanford Health clinical lab doctor, Patricia Crotwell-Leiferman, Ph.D. “Fortunately, humans also have many of the genes that drive fish development, so I made a leap to genetic research, but it wasn’t my original goal.”

Growing field

More students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers are looking into the growing area of clinical genetics.

“This is a developing field and there will be huge demand for those who enter it,” said Sherin Shaaban, M.D., Ph.D., a Sanford Health clinical lab doctor. “Generating the data is becoming easier, but interpreting is what matters.”

Students who have strong analytical skills and want to help patients could benefit from this job.

Sanford Health’s commitment

The field of genetics has expanded tremendously over the years. For students who are interested in genetics but not sure what they want they want to do, Sanford Health partners with Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a genetic counseling master’s degree program. This program is one of fewer than 40 accredited programs in the U.S and the only one in South Dakota. The Augustana-Sanford Genetic Counseling Program (ASGCGP) welcomed its first class in the fall of 2016 when the program launched.

Students can expect the first year of the graduate program to heavily weight to classroom learning while students begin to have clinical patient interaction in the first semester.

Students enrolled into the program spend their first academic year in Sioux Falls. The second year of the program focuses away from the classroom, which allows students to get clinical experience. Half of second-year students stay in the Sioux Falls area and the other half of the semester learn in San Diego. Program allows students to continue their education and learn from both professors and medical professionals.

Posted In Genetics, Research