According to health experts, laboratory testing is the most voluminous activity in the medical industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates that 70 percent today’s medical decisions depend on the results of laboratory tests. Almost every time a patient enters a hospital or healthcare facility, their diagnosis is in the hands of a medical laboratory specialist. This makes medical laboratory professionals a critical component of the healthcare ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the industry is currently in a precarious situation. The workhorse of the medical industry is now experiencing an unprecedented shortage of staff. The industry is estimated to be short of around 25,000 workers. This means the current workforce of technologists and technicians in the clinical laboratory, which by 2020 is estimated to be only 335,500 professionals, is stretched to the limit.
As of 2020, there was approximately one medical laboratory scientist for every 1,000 people in the US, or one laboratory scientist for every 38,500 laboratory tests performed annually. A 2018 report issued by the American Society of Clinical Pathology revealed vacancy rates of 7-11 percent in almost every laboratory specialty and up to 25 percent in some departments. And the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a national need for a 13 percent increase in laboratory technologists and technicians alone, which is nearly double the basic increase required for all other occupations.
The talent draft is in a drought
According to 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 at Hofstra/Northwell, one reason for the labor shortage in the laboratory industry is a simple lack of awareness among qualified applicants.
“Nursing, physician assistants and other health care professions have gotten more exposure, especially in the last 20 years,” he said. “I think we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘Have we done the work we need to do to promote our profession?’ For me, this is the call of our time.”
Dr. Crawford, who is also a founding member and chairman of the board of Project Santa Fe, creators of Clinical Laboratory 2.0 concept, further explained that “in recent times, the visibility of the laboratory profession has been low, being almost unknown to school counselors, both at the high school and college levels. Generally, you need to know someone or be influenced by someone in the field to get addicted.”
Because of this, many clinical laboratory training programs are underfilled. Even if the demand is there, the number of training programs is decreasing. There are now fewer than 240 medical laboratory technician and scientist training programs in the US
The problem is compounded by the fact that the profession as a whole has a “mature” demographic.
According to Dr. Crawford, “the exit rate of experienced laboratory technicians is higher than the entry rate of young people entering the profession.”
The high cost of education
In addition to lack of awareness and the declining availability of training programs, other factors that deter students from becoming new laboratory technicians are educational requirements and cost. To earn a laboratory science degree, students face a five-year commitment. Then, once they graduate, they will need to be certified by American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP).
“Like most advanced degree programs today, the time and expense commitment to becoming a clinical laboratory scientist can be significant,” said CEO of LigoLab Suren Avundjian. “The average cost of a medical laboratory degree is about $100,000, about half the cost of becoming a doctor. However, because of the vital role that medical laboratories play in healthcare, it can be one of the most rewarding careers in medicine.
Avunjian has spent more than nearly three decades working with laboratories in various capacities. His current company, LigoLab, is an end-to-end software provider for clinical laboratories and pathology groups. The LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Operations Platform is an enterprise-grade laboratory information system that includes modules that support anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, revenue cycle management and direct-to-consumer testing.
The laboratory profession is not immune to burnout or the Great Resignation
Burnout is another problem that the laboratory industry struggles with. According to ASCP, which conducted job satisfaction study of laboratory specialists, 85.3 percent of the workforce experiences burnout. In addition, 36.5% of respondents stated that the reason for their dissatisfaction was lack of staff, while approximately 35% attributed it to workload.
“Amplified by the pandemic, stress and burnout are having a major impact on the healthcare industry,” Avundjian said. “Unfortunately, laboratory professionals are not immune to this trend.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the Great Reconciliation, which affects most professions. According to a recent ADP Research Institute report, 71 percent of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 24 said that if an employer required them to commute to an office full-time, they would consider looking for a new job. This is troubling news for an industry that requires skilled personnel to work in person and on site.
What can labs do?
According to Dr. Crawford, opportunities for career growth should be more obvious and salaries should be more competitive with other health professions.
“We need to make it clear that this is an exciting job that has real career growth potential and that compensates on a competitive basis,” Dr. Crawford said. “A clear path forward must also be visible, both to recruit talented people into the laboratory profession and to ensure leadership as older staff retire.” We need to make clear what is already true: that medical laboratory scientists can grow into roles such as manager, director, senior director, assistant vice president, vice president, and beyond.
Being competitive in terms of starting salary is another big barrier to overcome if the lab industry wants to be able to buck the trend and hire the best and the brightest. Medical laboratory technologists are routine paid significantly less than other medically trained professionals such as nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, and pharmacists.
“Getting to the front lines of the educational pipeline and making the necessary adjustments in terms of awareness of the laboratory profession and its career ladder and compensation is critical,” said Dr. Crawford.
Technology can also help shape the future of the laboratory industry
In addition to skilled and talented staff, Dr. Crawford believes that both process improvement and advanced technology can also help ease the staffing burden that medical laboratories face. For Crawford, process improvement comes down to what can be done to effectively deploy the workforce where all employees and departments can play to their strengths. To achieve this, he believes in the standardization of laboratory operations within the health system, from the LIS, to the equipment, to the reagents, etc. Once achieved, the individual healthcare system can flex and adjust as needed to relieve stress points and handle peak operating volumes.
Avunjian agreed with Dr. Crawford about lab technology and the role it plays in solving the current crisis.
“Implementing the right technology is the best way for laboratories to streamline their operations,” he said. “A modern laboratory information system (LIS) can help laboratory managers fill the gaps created by staff shortages by 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 anatomic 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