Factors contributing to shortage of med techs and other lab scientists include limited training programs in clinical laboratory science, pay disparity, and staff retention, notes infectious disease specialist Judy Stone, MD
Staff shortages are a growing challenge for medical laboratories, and now the problem has grabbed the attention of a major media outlet.
In a story she penned for Forbes, titled, “We’re Facing a Critical Shortage of Medical Laboratory Professionals,” senior contributor and infectious disease specialist Judy Stone, MD, wrote, “Behind the scenes at every hospital are indispensable medical laboratory professionals. They performed an estimated 13 billion laboratory tests in the United States each year before COVID. Since the pandemic began, they have also conducted almost 997 million diagnostic tests for COVID-19. The accuracy and timeliness of lab tests are critically important, as they shape approximately two-thirds of all medical decisions made by physicians.”
Stone was citing data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Though Stone states in her Forbes article that clinical laboratories in both the US and Canada are facing staff shortages, she notes that the problem is more acute in the US.
As Dark Daily reported in February, the so-called “Great Resignation” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on clinical laboratory staffs, creating shortages of pathologists as well as of medical technologists, medical laboratory technicians, and other lab scientists who are vital to the nation’s network of clinical laboratories.
In her analysis, however, Stone accurately observes that the problem pre-dates the pandemic. For examples she cites two surveys conducted in 2018 by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP):
- The ASCP’s Job Satisfaction, Well-Being, and Burnout Survey of Laboratory Professionals, which “examined job satisfaction, well-being, job stress, and burnout among laboratory professionals,” and
- The ASCP’s 2018 Vacancy Survey of Medical Laboratories in the United States, which set out to “determine the extent and distribution of workforce shortages within the nation’s medical laboratories.”
Many pathologists and clinical laboratory managers would agree that Stone is right. Dark Daily has repeatedly reported on growing staff shortages at clinical laboratories worldwide.
In “Critical Shortages of Supplies and Qualified Personnel During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Taking a Toll on the Nation’s Clinical Laboratories says CAP,” Dark Daily reported on presentations given during the 2021 College of American Pathologists (CAP) virtual meeting in which presenters discussed the ever-increasing demand for COVID-19 testing that had placed an enormous amount of stress on clinical laboratories, medical technologists (MTs), and clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs) responsible for processing the high volume of SARS-CoV-2 tests, and on the supply chains medical laboratories depend on to receive and maintain adequate supplies of testing materials.
And in “Lab Staffing Shortages Reaching Dire Levels,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, noted that CAP Today had characterized the current lab staffing shortage as going “from simmer to rolling boil” and that demand for medical technologists and other certified laboratory scientists far exceeds the supply. Consequently, many labs now use overtime and temp workers to handle daily testing, a strategy that has led to staff burnout and more turnover.
Why the Shortfall?
In her Forbes article, Stone notes the following as factors behind the shortages:
- Decline in training programs. “There are only [approximately] 240 medical laboratory technician and scientist training programs in the US, a 7% drop from 2000,” Stone wrote, adding that some states have no training programs at all. She notes that lab technicians must have a two-year associate degree while it takes an average of five years of post-secondary education to obtain a lab science degree.
- Pay disparities. Citing data from the ASCP, Stone wrote that “medical lab professionals are paid 40%-60% less than nurses, physical therapists, or pharmacists.” Moreover, given the high cost of training, “many don’t feel the salary is worth the high investment,” she added.
- Staff retention. In the ASCP’s 2018 job satisfaction survey, 85.3% of respondents reported burnout from their jobs, 36.5% cited problems with inadequate staffing, and nearly that many complained that workloads were too high.
- Inconsistent licensing requirements. These requirements “are different from state to state,” Stone wrote. For example, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) notes that 11 states plus Puerto Rico mandate licensure of laboratory personnel whereas others do not. Each of those states has specific licensing requirements, and while most offer reciprocity for other state licenses, “California [for example] does not recognize any certification or any other state license.”
In a 2018 report, “Addressing the Clinical Laboratory Workforce Shortage,” the ASCLS cited other factors contributing to the shortages, including retirement of aging personnel and increased demand for lab services.
Stone suggested the following remedies:
- Improve working conditions. “We need to reduce the stress and workload of the lab professionals before we reach a greater crisis,” Stone wrote.
- Standardize state certification. This will facilitate “mobility of staff and flexibility in responding to needs,” Stone suggested.
- Improve education and training opportunities. The ASCLS has called for clinical lab science to be included in the Title VII health professions program, which provides funding for healthcare training. Rodney Rohde, PhD, a clinical laboratory science professor at Texas State University, “also suggests outreach to middle and high school STEM programs, to familiarize students early with career opportunities in the medical laboratory profession,” Stone wrote.
- Recruit foreign workers. Stone suggested this as an interim solution, with programs to help them acclimate to practice standards in the US.
It will likely take multiple solutions like these to address the Great Resignation and bring the nation’s clinical laboratory staffing levels back to full. In the meantime, across the nation, a majority of clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups operate short-staffed and use overtime and temporary workers as a partial answer to their staffing requirements.