Critical shortages in medical laboratory workers and supplies are yet to be offset by new applicants and improved supply chains. But there is cause for hope.

Medical laboratory scientists (aka, medical technologists) can be hard to find and retain under normal circumstances. During the current coronavirus pandemic, that’s becoming even more challenging. As demand for COVID-19 tests increases, clinical laboratories need more technologists and lab scientists with certifications, skills, and experience to perform these complex assays. But how can lab managers find, attract, and retain them?

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports that as of mid-October more than one million tests for SARS-CoV-2 were being performed daily in the US. And as flu season approaches, the pandemic appears to be intensifying. However, supply of lab technologists remains severely constrained, as it has been for a long time.

An article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), titled, “Help Wanted at COVID-19 Testing Labs: Coronavirus Pandemic Has Heightened Longstanding Labor Shortages in America’s Clinical Laboratories,” reported that to address staff shortages “labs are grappling at solutions,” such as:

  • using traveling lab workers,
  • automation,
  • flexible scheduling, and
  • salary increases.

Still, qualified medical technologists (MT) and clinical laboratory scientists (CLS) are hard to find.

Demand for COVID Tests Exceeds Available Clinical Lab Applicants

“I can replace hardware and I can manage not having enough reagents, but I can’t easily replace a qualified [medical] technologist,” said David Grenache, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at TriCore Reference Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M., in the WSJ.

Another area where demand outstrips supply is California. Megan Crumpler, PhD, Laboratory Director, Orange County Public Health Laboratory, told the WSJ, “We are constantly scrambling for personnel, and right now we don’t have a good feel about being able to fill these vacancies, because we know there’s not a pool of applicants.”

In fact, according to an American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) Coronavirus Testing Survey, 56% of labs surveyed in September said staffing the lab is one of the greatest challenges. That is up from 35% in May.

Are Reductions in Academic Programs Responsible for Lack of Available Lab Workers?

Recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show 337,800 clinical laboratory technologists and technicians employed by hospitals, public health, and commercial labs, with Job Outlook (projected percent change in employment) growing at 7% from 2019 to 2029. This, according to the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook on Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, is “faster than average.”

“The average growth rate for all occupations is 4%,” the BLS notes.

Medical laboratories have the most staff vacancies in phlebotomy (13%) and the least openings in point-of-care (4%), according to an American Society for Clinical Pathology 2018 Vacancy Survey published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology (AJCP).

Becker’s Hospital Review reported that “Labor shortages in [clinical] testing labs have existed for years due to factors including low recruitment, an aging workforce, and relatively low pay for [medical] lab technicians and technologists compared to that of other healthcare workers with similar education requirements.

“In 2019, the median annual salary for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians was $53,000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The skills required for lab workers also are often specialized and not easily transferred from other fields.”

At the “root” of the problem, according to an article in Medical Technology Schools, is a decrease in available academic programs. Laboratory technologists require a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree and technicians need an associate degree or post-secondary certificate.

“(The programs) are expensive to offer, so when it comes to cuts and budgets, some of those cuts have been based on how much it costs to run them. That, and they may not have high enough enrollments,” said Lisa Cremeans, MMDS, CLS(NCA), MLS(ASCP), Clinical Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the Medical Technology Schools article. (Photo copyright: University of North Carolina.)

AACC has called for federal funding of these programs, which now number 608, down from 720 programs for medical laboratory scientists in 1990.

“The pandemic has shone a spotlight on how crucial testing is to patient care. It also has revealed the weak points in our country’s [clinical laboratory] testing infrastructure, such as the fact that the US has allowed the number of laboratory training programs to diminish for years now,” said Grenache, who is also AACC President, in a news release.

Creative Staffing Strategies Clinical Labs Can Take Now

Clinical laboratory managers need staffing and related solutions now. As Dark Daily recently reported in, “Three Prominent Clinical Laboratory Leaders Make the Same Prediction: COVID-19 Testing Will Be Significant Through 2020 and Throughout 2021,” prominent clinical labs are gearing up for dramatic increases in COVID-19 testing. This e-briefing was based on a 2020 Executive War College virtual session that covered how labs should prepare now so they can prosper clinically and financially going forward. That session can be download by registering here.

The final session of the 2020 Virtual Executive War College, titled “What Comes Next in Healthcare and Laboratory Medicine: Essential Insights to Position Your Clinical Lab and Pathology Group for Clinical and Financial Success, Whether COVID or No COVID,” took place on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Given the importance of sound strategic planning for all clinical laboratories and pathology groups during their fall budget process, this session is being provided free to download for all professionals in laboratory medicine, in vitro diagnostics, and lab informatics.

To register for free access:

How Some Clinical Labs are Coping with Staff and Recruitment Challenges

The Arizona Chamber Business News reported that Sonora Quest Laboratories in Tempe earlier this year launched “Operation Catapult” to help with a 60,000 COVID-19 test increase in daily test orders. The strategy involved hiring 215 employees and securing tests with the help of partners:

Meanwhile, students in the UMass Lowell (UML) medical laboratory science (MLS) program, see brighter skies ahead.

“The job outlook even before COVID-19 was so amazing,” said Dannalee Watson, a UML MLS student, in a news release. “It’s like you’re figuring out a puzzle with your patient. Then, we help the doctor make decisions.”

Such enthusiasm is refreshing and reassuring. In the end, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the resultant demand for clinical laboratory testing may call more students’ attention to careers in medical laboratories and actually help to solve the lab technologist/technician shortage. We can hope.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Help Wanted at COVID-19 Testing Labs

AACC COVID-19 Testing Survey: Full Survey Results

The American Society for Clinical Pathology’s 2018 Vacancy Survey of Medical Laboratories in the United States

Labs Squeezed for Staff to Meet COVID-19 Testing Demand

Medical Lab Scientist: Interview Clinical Worker Shortage

AACC Urges Congress to Fund Lab Training Programs to Prepare U.S. for Future Pandemics

Sonora Quest Pulls Out All Stops to Put Arizona in Front of COVID-19 Testing

Diagnostic Labs Eager to Hire UML Medical Lab Science Majors

Three Prominent Clinical Laboratory Leaders Make the Same Prediction: COVID-19 Testing Will be Significant Through 2020 and Throughout 2021

Expert Panel—What Comes Next in Healthcare and Laboratory Medicine: Essential Insights to Position your Clinical Lab and Pathology Group for Clinical and Financial Success, COVID or No COVID