According to healthcare experts, laboratory testing is the medical industry’s highest-volume activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 70 percent of today’s medical decisions are dependent on laboratory test results. Nearly every time a patient enters a hospital or healthcare facility, their diagnosis is in the hands of a medical laboratory professional. That makes medical laboratory professionals a critical component of the healthcare ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the industry is in a precarious situation right now. The medical industry’s workhorse is now experiencing unprecedented staffing shortages. It is estimated that the industry is short some 25,000 workers. That means the current workforce of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, which as of 2020 was estimated to be only 335,500 professionals, is being stretched to the limits.
As of 2020, there was roughly one medical laboratory scientist for every 1,000 people in the U.S. or one laboratory scientist for every 38,500 lab tests performed annually. A 2018 report issued by the American Society for Clinical Pathology uncovered vacancy rates of 7-11 percent in almost every lab specialty, 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 for laboratory services at Northwell Health and professor and chair of pathology/lab Medicine at the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, one reason for the lab industry’s staffing shortfall is a simple lack of awareness among qualified candidates.
“Nursing, physician assistants, and other healthcare professions have received more publicity coverage, especially over the last 20 years,” he said. “I think we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘have we done the job we need to do to publicize our profession? To me, that is the clarion call of our time.’”
Dr. Crawford, who is also a founding member and chairman of the board at Project Santa Fe, creators of the Clinical Laboratory 2.0 concept, further explained that “in recent times, the visibility of the laboratory profession has been poor, being virtually unknown to school counselors, both at the high school and college associate degree level. In general, it takes knowing someone or being influenced by someone in the field to get hooked.”
Because of this, many clinical laboratory training programs are incompletely filled. Even if the demand were there, the number of training programs is declining. There are now less than 240 medical laboratory technician and scientist training programs in the U.S.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the profession, in general, has a “mature” demographic.
According to Dr. Crawford, “the exit rate of experienced lab techs is higher than the entry rate of young people coming into the profession.”
The High Cost of Education
In addition to a lack of awareness and shrinking availability of training programs, other factors deterring students from becoming new lab professionals are education requirements and expenses. To earn a laboratory science degree, students face a five-year commitment. Then, after they graduate, they’ll need to be certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).
“Like most advanced educational programs today, the time and cost commitment to become a clinical laboratory scientist can be significant,” said LigoLab CEO Suren Avunjian. “The average cost for a degree in medical lab science is in the neighborhood of $100,000, about half the cost to become a physician. However, because of the vital role that medical labs play within the field of healthcare, it can be one of the most fulfilling careers in medicine.”
Avunjian has spent more than nearly three decades working with laboratories in varying capacities. His current company, LigoLab, is a provider of end-to-end software 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 anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, revenue cycle management, and direct-to-consumer testing.
The Lab Profession isn’t Immune to Burnout or The Great Resignation
Burnout is another issue that the laboratory industry is grappling with. According to ASCP, which conducted a job satisfaction survey of laboratory professionals, 85.3 percent of the workforce is experiencing burnout. In addition, 36.5 percent of those surveyed said that inadequate staffing was the cause of their dissatisfaction, while roughly 35 percent attributed it to the workload.
“Amplified by the pandemic, stress and burnout are taking a big toll on the healthcare industry,” Avunjian said. ”Unfortunately, lab professionals are not immune to this trend.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the Great Resignation, which is impacting 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 were to insist that they commute to an office full-time, they would consider looking for a new job. This is worrisome news for an industry that requires qualified personnel to work in-person and on-location.
What Can Labs Do?
According to Dr. Crawford, career growth opportunities need to be more apparent, and salaries need to be more competitive with other health professions.
“We have to make it clear that it’s an exciting job, one that has true career growth potential, and one that compensates on a competitive basis,” said Dr. Crawford. “A clear path toward advancement must also be visible, both to recruit talented individuals into the laboratory profession and to ensure that there is leadership as the older personnel retire. We need to make it evident what is already true: that medical laboratory scientists can grow into roles like manager, director, senior director, assistant vice president, vice president, and even beyond.”
Being competitive in terms of starting salary is another large barrier that needs to be addressed if the laboratory industry is to be able to change the trend and hire the best and the brightest. Medical lab technologists are routinely paid significantly less than other medically trained professionals like nurses, physician associates, physical therapists, and pharmacists.
“Getting to the frontlines of the educational pipeline and making the necessary adjustments in terms of awareness of the laboratory profession and its career ladder and compensation are critical,” Dr. Crawford said.
Technology Can Also Help Future-Proof the Laboratory Industry
In addition to qualified and talented personnel, Dr. Crawford believes that both process improvement and advanced technology can also help relieve the staffing burden that medical laboratories are facing. For Crawford, process improvement boils down to what can be done to effectively deploy the workforce where all personnel and departments can play to their strengths. To achieve this, he believes in standardization of laboratory operations within a health system, from the LIS, to the equipment, to the reagents, and so on. Once achieved, an individual health system can flex and adjust as needed to alleviate stress points and deal with peak operational volumes.
Avunjian agreed with Dr. Crawford about laboratory 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 laboratories 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 anatomic pathology laboratories. The system supports the inputting, tracking, processing, reporting, and storing of specimens and patient data, or PHI (Protected Health Information).
Photo: Andry Djumantara, Getty Images