More talent and technology provide solutions to staffing shortages in medical labs

According to health experts, laboratory testing is the top-grossing activity in the medical industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 70 percent of today’s medical decisions depend on laboratory test results. Almost every time a patient enters a hospital or healthcare facility, their diagnosis is in the hands of a medical laboratory professional. This makes medical laboratory staff a critical part of the healthcare ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the industry is currently in a precarious situation. The workhorse of the medical industry is currently suffering from an unprecedented shortage of staff. It is estimated that the industry is short of around 25,000 workers. That means the current workforce of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, estimated at just 335,500 professionals in 2020, is reaching its limits.

As of 2020, there was approximately one medical laboratory scientist for every 1,000 residents in the United States, or one laboratory scientist for every 38,500 laboratory tests performed annually. A 2018 report published by the American Society for Clinical Pathology uncovered job vacancies ranging from 7 to 11 percent in almost all laboratory specialties and up to 25 percent in some departments. And the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a nationwide need for a 13 percent increase in laboratory technologists and technicians alone, which is nearly double the underlying increase needed in all other occupations.

The talent pipeline is in a drought

according to dr James Crawford, senior vice president of laboratory services at Northwell Health and professor and chair of pathology/laboratory medicine at the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine in Hofstra, Northwell, one reason the laboratory industry is understaffed is a simple lack of awareness among qualified candidates.

“Nursing, physician assistants and other healthcare professions have received more attention, especially in the last 20 years,” he said. “I think we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘Have we done the work that we need to do to spread the word about our profession? For me, this is the wake-up call of our time.”

dr Crawford, who is also a founding member and CEO of Project Santa Fe, the creator of the Clinical Laboratory 2.0 concept, further explained that “recently, the visibility of the laboratory profession has been poor because it is virtually unknown among school counselors, both at the high school and as well as at the college associate degree level. In general, you have to know someone or be influenced by someone in the field to become addicted.”

For this reason, many clinical laboratory training programs are understaffed. Even if the demand were there, the number of training programs is declining. There are now fewer than 240 training programs for medical laboratory technicians and scientists in the United States

To make matters worse, the profession generally has a “mature” demographic.

according to dr Crawford, “the exit rate of experienced lab technicians is higher than the entry rate of young people entering the profession.”

The high cost of education

In addition to a lack of awareness and the shrinking availability of training programs, other factors discouraging students from becoming new laboratory professionals include training requirements and costs. To earn a laboratory science degree, students must commit for five years. Upon graduation, they must then be certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

“As with most advanced education programs today, the time and expense involved in becoming a clinical laboratory scientist can be significant,” said Suren Avunjian, CEO of LigoLab. “The average cost of a medical laboratory science degree is close to $100,000, about half the cost of becoming a doctor. However, because of the important role medical laboratories play in the healthcare environment, this can be one of the most fulfilling careers in medicine.”

Avunjian has spent more than nearly three decades collaborating with laboratories of different capacities. His current company, LigoLab, is a provider of end-to-end software for clinical laboratories and pathology groups. The LigoLab LIS & RCM laboratory operations platform is an enterprise-class laboratory information system that includes modules supporting anatomical pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, turnover cycle management and direct-to-consumer testing.

The lab profession is not immune to Burnout or The Great Resignation

Burnout is another problem the laboratory industry is grappling with. According to ASCP, which conducted a job satisfaction survey among laboratory professionals, 85.3 percent of the workforce suffers from burnout. In addition, 36.5 percent of those surveyed cited insufficient staffing as the reason for their dissatisfaction, and around 35 percent attributed it to the workload.

“Amplified by the pandemic, stress and burnout are taking a heavy toll on the healthcare industry,” Avunjian said. “Unfortunately, laboratory professionals are not immune to this trend.”

Adding Fuel to the Fire is the Great Resignation that affects most professions. According to a recent report by the ADP Research Institute, 71 percent of workers between the ages of 18 and 24 said they would look for a new job if an employer insisted that they commute full-time to the office. This is worrying news for an industry that needs qualified personnel to work in person and on site.

What can labs do?

according to dr Crawford needs career opportunities to be more visible and salaries need to be more competitive compared to other healthcare professions.

“We need to make it clear that this is an exciting job, a job that offers real career growth potential and that pays off on a competitive basis,” said Dr. Crawford. “A clear path to advancement must also be visible, both to recruit talented individuals for the laboratory profession and to ensure there is leadership as older employees retire. We need to make clear what is already true: that medical laboratory scientists can grow into roles such as manager, director, executive director, associate vice president, vice president, and even beyond.”

Being competitive in terms of starting salary is another major obstacle that must be addressed if the laboratory industry is to be able to change tide and hire the best and brightest. Medical laboratory technologists are routinely paid significantly less than other medically trained professionals such as nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, and pharmacists.

“It is critical to get to the front of the education pipeline and make the necessary adjustments in terms of awareness of the laboratory profession and its career ladder and compensation,” said Dr. Crawford.

Technology can also help future-proof the laboratory industry

In addition to qualified and talented staff, Dr. Crawford believes that both process improvements and advanced technology can help reduce the human burden medical laboratories face. For Crawford, process improvement boils down to what can be done to leverage the workforce where all employees and departments can play to their strengths. To achieve this, he believes in standardizing laboratory operations within a healthcare system, from LIS to equipment to reagents and so on. Once achieved, an individual healthcare system can flexibly adapt and adjust as needed to alleviate stress points and handle peak operational volumes.

Avunjian agreed with Dr. Crawford on the lab technology and the role it is playing in solving the current crisis.

“Implementing the right technology is the best way for labs to streamline their operations,” he said. “A modern laboratory information system (LIS) can help laboratory managers fill the gaps created by staffing shortages, making medical laboratories more efficient and less dependent on manual steps during the testing workflow.”

A laboratory information system is a technology solution that helps manage all aspects of diagnostic testing for molecular, clinical, and anatomical pathology laboratories. The system supports the entry, tracking, processing, reporting and storage of samples and patient data or PHI (Protected Health Information).

Photo: Andry Djumantara, Getty Images

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