More talent and technology offer solutions to medical laboratory staffing shortages

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According to health experts, laboratory testing is the most voluminous activity in the medical industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 70 percent medical decisions today depend on the results of laboratory tests. Almost every time a patient walks into a hospital or healthcare facility, their diagnosis is in the hands of a medical laboratory professional. This makes medical laboratory professionals an essential part of the healthcare ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the industry is currently in a precarious situation. The workhorse of the medical industry is now experiencing unprecedented staffing shortages. The industry is estimated to be short of some 25,000 workers. This means that the current workforce of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, which in 2020 was estimated at only 335,500 professionals, is pushed to its limits.

In 2020, there was approximately one medical laboratory scientist for every 1,000 people in the United States, or one laboratory scientist for every 38,500 laboratory tests performed each year. A 2018 report by the American Society for Clinical Pathology found vacancy rate of 7 to 11% in almost all laboratory specialties, and up to 25% in some departments. And the Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts a national need for a 13 percent increase in laboratory technologists and technicians alone, nearly double the underlying increase needed in all other occupations.

The talent pipeline is in crisis

According Dr. James Crawfordsenior 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 of the reasons for the hospital’s understaffing. lab industry is a simple lack of awareness among qualified applicants.

“Nursing, physician assistants and other health professions have received more publicity coverage, especially over the past 20 years,” he said. “I think we have to look at each other and say, ‘Have we done the work that we need to do to publicize our profession? For me, it is the clarion call of our time.

Dr. Crawford, who is also a founding member and chairman of the board of directors of Project Santa Fe, creators of the Clinical Lab 2.0 concept, further explained that “of late, the visibility of the laboratory profession has been poor, being virtually unknown to school counselors at both high school and college levels. In general, it takes knowing someone or being influenced by someone in the field to get hooked.

For this reason, many clinical laboratory training programs are not fully completed. Even if the demand was there, the number of training programs is decreasing. There are now fewer than 240 medical laboratory technician and scientist training programs in the United States.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the profession, in general, has a “mature” population.

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

Besides lack of awareness and decreasing availability of training programs, other factors that deter students from becoming new laboratory professionals are educational requirements and expense. To earn a laboratory science degree, students must commit to five years. Then, after graduating, they will need to be certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

“Like most advanced educational programs today, the time and cost commitment to becoming a clinical laboratory scientist can be significant,” said CEO of Ligo Lab Suren Avunjian. “The average cost for a medical laboratory science degree is around $100,000, about half the cost to become a doctor. However, due to the vital role medical laboratories play in healthcare, it can be one of the most rewarding careers in medicine.

Avunjian has spent over three decades working with labs of varying capabilities. His current business, LigoLab, is an end-to-end software provider for clinical laboratories and pathology groups. The LigoLab LIS & RCM laboratory operating platform is an enterprise-grade laboratory information system that includes modules that support anatomical pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, revenue cycle management and direct-to-consumer testing.

The laboratory profession is not immune to burnout or the big quit

Burnout is another problem the lab industry struggles with. According to the ASCP, which conducted a survey on job satisfaction survey of laboratory professionals, 85.3% of the workforce suffers from burnout. In addition, 36.5% of respondents said that the lack of staff was the cause of their dissatisfaction, while about 35% 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, which impacts most professions. According to a recent ADP Research Institute report, 71% of the workforce aged 18-24 said that if an employer insisted that they go to the office full-time, they would consider looking for a new job. This is worrying news for an industry that needs qualified personnel to work in person and on site.

What can laboratories do?

According to Dr. Crawford, opportunities for career growth need to be more apparent and salaries need to be more competitive with other healthcare professions.

“We need to make it clear that this is exciting work, with real potential for career growth, and is remunerated on a competitive basis,” said Dr Crawford. “A clear path to advancement must also be visible, both to recruit talented people into the laboratory profession and to ensure that there is leadership when older staff retire. We need to make clear what is already true: that medical laboratory scientists can evolve into roles such as manager, director, senior director, assistant vice president, vice president, and even beyond. »

Being competitive in terms of starting salary is another significant hurdle that must be overcome if the lab industry is to be able to turn the tide and hire the best and brightest. Medical laboratory technologists are regularly paid much less than other medically trained professionals such as nurses, associate physicians, physiotherapists and pharmacists.

“Getting to the front lines of the educational pipeline and making the necessary adjustments in terms of lab profession awareness, career ladder, and compensation is critical,” Dr. Crawford said.

Technology can also help future-proof the lab industry

In addition to skilled and talented staff, Dr. Crawford believes that improved processes and advanced technology can also help ease the staff burden faced by medical laboratories. For Crawford, process improvement comes down to what can be done to effectively deploy the workforce where all staff and departments can play to their strengths. To achieve this, he believes in standardizing laboratory operations within a healthcare system, from the LIS, to equipment, reagents, etc. Once achieved, an individual healthcare system can adapt and adapt as needed to alleviate stress points and cope with peak operational volumes.

Avunjian agreed with Dr. Crawford on lab technology and the role it plays 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 lab managers fill the gaps created by staffing shortages by making medical labs more efficient and less reliant on manual steps during testing workflows.”

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 capture, tracking, processing, reporting, and storage of patient samples and data, or PHI (Protected Health Information).

Photo: Andry Djumantara, Getty Images

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