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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

It's OK to Say You Don't Know

Published November 3, 2013 2:37 PM by Glen McDaniel

I wish I knew everything, but I don't. On second thought: it would be pretty boring to have every fact at my finger tips and I never have to learn, to ask, research or dig for information. In any event, has someone ever asked you a question and you hesitated before admitting that you don't know the answer?

I am the king of trivia, so I have a collection of disjointed facts in my head. I am the kind of friend to call as your lifeline if you are stuck on "Who wants to be a millionaire?"  I am not cocky, because I honestly don't even know how and when I stockpiled all that (largely useless) random pieces of information.

Although my family knows that I am a medical laboratory scientist (not a doctor, pharmacist or nurse) they also turn to me a lot for medical information and advice. I happen to know a little about a lot of things, but I am certainly no substitute for a visit to your physician.

I have long espoused the philosophy that as medical lab scientists we have a unique body of knowledge and are the experts on MLS. I strongly support speaking out and provided current and credible information to physicians, nurses and patients. But in order to provide such a service credibly, honestly and safely, we have to make sure we are truly knowledgeable and accurate.

I was in a medical office recently and overheard a physician explain to a medical assistant that it doesn't matter how long urine is centrifuged for a microscopic examination, but "Most people don't spin long enough, I like mine spun hard for 10 minutes to make sure everything settles."

I recently heard a diabetes educator give blatantly incorrect information to patients about lipids and hemoglobin A1C. When I am in the presence of healthcare professionals who do not know my background, I am amazed at not just how they downplay and "diss" our profession, but how they mischaracterize important aspects like specimen collection, storage, patient preparation and interpretation of test results.

We all have stories about the person in the laboratory who will always give an answer to a caller, instead of referring them to an individual who is more appropriate or knowledgeable. Are your phlebotomists and customer service reps trained to say, "I will let you speak to a MLS about this" or "I am sorry I am not sure, but I will find out and call you back."

There is no shame in not knowing. We hurt our credibility and put patients at risk if we choose to give answers because we want to appear to "know it all."

Again, there is a lot of information we can offer; we absolutely should be more aggressive in giving advice and interpretations; we should wear the mantle of "expert" more confidently and proudly. But part of being a true professional who offers real value to those he serves is to know when-and not be afraid - to say, "I don't know."


Reluctance to say I don't know is an epidemic in this country. Look at the politicians. They say they have  a solution for everything although they do nothing to back it up. Or when you call in to a help line for anything. They almost always give you a story just to get you off the line. I am frustrated when I call for technical assistance and the solution doesn't work. I call back and get a totally different solution, on and on.

I think in medicine especially we are scared to let people know we might not know more than them. We think they wont respect us if we are not little gods.

Maybe we  the lab can make a difference by saying we don't know but also be confident when we DO know.

Marilyn Taylor, MTll November 7, 2013 5:16 PM
Naples FL

I used to work at a facility that I wont name. We had a MLT who worked in Specimen Accessioning. She had been at the hospital for many years and was well known,, She had friends on the floor like unit secretaries and even doctors and nurses.%0d%0a%0d%0aWhen they called for Blood Bank she would come ask us and then relay rhe information to them. She never worked in BB and was not too familiar because we did not have MLTs in our blood bank. So sometimes her translated information to the floor would be incorrect. If they asked about drawing BB specimens, was a new specimen required for patient X, or why a certain XMatch was taking so long she would always give them an answer. As the Supervisor I spent so much time backtracking and explaining things she had screwed up.%0d%0a%0d%0aThe sad thing is we in blood bank took a lot of the blame and they even called us liars because they said we changed our stories when it was the MLT who told them the wrong thing.%0d%0a%0d%0aShe had such powerful friends and knew everyone from my manager to HR to the people in administration that she could not be fired. When I left she was still there although she caused so many problems from giving wrong information. I am not sure if she was ever even warned or counseled.%0d%0a%0d%0aAnyway I am agreeing with you. We dont know everything and we can cause  alot of problems if we are too proud to say we dont know something. We can all stand to learn more. We all have our specialty. It is Ok to say you dont know.%0d%0a

Anonymous , Blood Bank Supervisor November 5, 2013 4:27 PM
Elgin IL

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