Staffing specialists advise medical laboratories to expect shortages to continue

Clinical laboratory and pathology group managers are keenly aware of the Great Resignation and how it has affected lab industry staffing and recruiting. Medical technologists (MTs) and clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs) are in particularly short supply and some experts do not see this critical shortage waning anytime soon.

In an exclusive interview with Dark Daily, Maggie Morrissey, Director of Recruiting and Staffing Services at Lighthouse Lab Services, explains the multi-faceted problem labs are facing meeting recruitment goals, and how understaffing can lead to bigger matters regarding morale and job satisfaction.

Based in Charlotte, N.C., Lighthouse Lab Services is a medical laboratory consulting and recruiting firm that employs 150 people and services more than 1,500 medical laboratory clients.

In July, Lighthouse released the results of its 2022 Survey on Wage and Morale Issues among Medical Laboratory Professionals. The collected data from 1,112 respondents found that only 27% indicated their clinical laboratories were adequately or well-staffed. Forty percent of respondents believe their labs were moderately understaffed while an additional 33% felt their labs were significantly understaffed. 

The primary reasons, according to Lighthouse, for staffing shortages can be attributed to:

  • The number of schools offering medical technology programs has decreased.
  • People have been retiring at a higher rate than most industries.
  • It is difficult to become a medical technologist/clinical laboratory scientist.
  • There are hurdles to jump through to become a medical technologist.
  • Medical technology is not a well-known field.

“[Eastern Carolina University] told us they don’t have anyone graduating from the [medical technology] program this year because of COVID. There are all these issues exacerbating the problem,” said Maggie Morrissey (above), Director of Recruiting and Staffing Services at Lighthouse Lab Services, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “Making it more attractive starts at the school level. People need to be introduced to the science of medical technology. It’s not something that many students know exists as a career.” This lack of interest in training programs is a major reason for the severe shortage of medical technologists on staff at clinical laboratories around the US. (Photo copyright: Lighthouse Lab Services.) 

Stagnant Pay, Low Morale, Lack of Appreciation in Clinical Labs

“The major issue that we see with medical labs across the country is that they are understaffed,” Morrissey stated. “That tracks to low morale. It’s a major issue for laboratories because when a lab is understaffed and everyone is working very hard, lab staff  may not feel appreciated and their morale starts to wane, which snowballs into larger issues.”

Morrissey pointed out that individuals who work for different sized clinical laboratories have dissimilar grievances about their jobs. 

“Pay continues to be a concern for all, but benefits are also important,” she said. “Pay and lack of benefits, like not being able to get time off, not having a 401K, and not having health insurance are hurdles for people working in smaller labs.” 

Professionals working in medium-sized and larger labs are also concerned about pay, but they have other complaints as well.

“They feel like they are a cog in the machine and feel underappreciated,” Morrissey said. “What we hear a lot from people who work in the clinical labs of large hospitals is that they feel unappreciated by those working in other departments.”

Too Few MT/MS Training Programs to Meet Demand

According to Forbes, the US currently has a shortage of approximately 20,000-25,000 medical technologists. The approximately 338,000 technologists working in the country equate to about one technologist per 1,000 people, which translates to a vacancy rate of 7% to 11% in almost every region. 

Forbes also reported that medical technologists in the US had performed approximately 13 billion laboratory tests annually before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic added 997 million SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tests to the existing workload.

Intensifying the problem is that currently there are only 240 medical technologist and medical scientist training programs in the US, which represents a 7% decrease since 2000. Forbes notes there are some states that have no such training programs at all. 

“Having the opportunity to train to be a medical technologist is an important thing,” Morrissey said. “More universities and community colleges need to offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in medical technology.”

However, even with an increase in available degrees, few students are enrolling in those programs.

Morrissey suggests that clinical lab professionals contact local educational institutions to inform them of the need for medical technology degrees and determine if they can do anything to help start such training programs.

“If you are a medical laboratory in an area that doesn’t have a school that offers a degree in medical technology, I would recommend banging down the doors of community colleges to see how you can get that type of program into place,” she proposed. “It really benefits you. It is really about getting those schools to realize there is a need for medical technologists.”

Morrissey added that schools are beginning to re-add medical technology programs to their curriculum. This may translate into more available MTs and CLSs to work in clinical laboratories and relieve some of the staffing shortages. 

Laboratory Automation, More Federal Lobbying Could Help

Automating some medical laboratory operations could present another solution to staffing dilemmas.

“Automation will help a little bit,” she said. “A significant number of labs are adding automation—either at the technology or collection level—so they don’t need as many technologists to run the lab.”

Additionally, regionalization of clinical labs could help with staffing issues because high volumes of samples can allow for the streamlining of staff. 

“Some integrated delivery networks (IDNs) that have multiple hospitals within a city or metro area are regionalizing their clinical laboratories and using couriers to transport the samples being collected, resulting in better efficiency and productivity,” she said.

Morrissey also believes there is room for lobbying for the occupation of medical technology at both the state and federal levels. She compared the clinical laboratory profession to how the nursing profession dealt with shortages in the past. 

“Nursing is in all hospital and doctor groups,” she explained. “They have very large organizations that are advocating for them at the federal and state level and labs need more of that.”

Clinical Lab Recruiting Reverting to Pre-COVID Qualifications

Though more people are testing themselves for COVID at home, Morrissey says the need for more clinical laboratory professionals will not subside any time soon. 

“Before COVID, there was a huge increase in requests for toxicology reports due to drug testing and screening,” she explained. “COVID caused those needs to go away, not because people didn’t need those things, but because everyone was focusing on COVID. If an individual is not going into work, does he or she really need a monthly drug screen? The needs shifted during COVID and now they are shifting back.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical labs were more willing to train individuals who had some lab experience or a background that would indicate they could perform the job duties. It is probable that recruiters will start to have more stringent requirements for potential lab employees, reverting back to pre-COVID qualifications. 

Nevertheless, Morrissey believes staffing shortages for medical laboratories will continue.

“In the short term, in the next one to three years, I think it is going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “In the medium term, automation in clinical laboratories will probably ease the staffing shortage quite a bit. Potentially, we will see more medical technology training programs pop up as the staffing shortages become a better-known issue.”

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

2022 Wage and Morale Survey of Medical Laboratory Professionals

Critical Shortage of Medical Technologists

We’re Facing a Critical Shortage of Medical Laboratory Professionals

Labs, Pathologists Aim to Delay 2023 Medicare Fee Schedule Cuts

Lessons from the Executive War College 2022

The American Society for Clinical Pathology’s Job Satisfaction, Well-Being, and Burnout Survey of Laboratory Professionals

Forbes Senior Contributor Covers Reasons for Growing Staff Shortages at Medical Laboratories and Possible Solutions

Clinical Laboratories Need Creative Staffing Strategies to Keep and Attract Hard-to-Find Medical Technologists, as Demand for COVID-19 Testing Increases

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