Influenza Outbreak Calls Attention to Shortage of Medical Technologists, other lab staff

It took the threat of an influenza pandemic recently to get at least one news reporter to realize the shortage of medical laboratory technicians has reached epidemic proportions.

While the recent outbreak of A/H1N1 influenza turned out to be a dress rehearsal, it inspired Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter Laura Landro to focus on the critical role played by medical technologists, clinical laboratory scientists, medical laboratory technicians, and other lab professionals, along with the potential consequences of this clinical laboratory staffing shortage when a killer bug turns out to be “for real.”

Michael Laposata, M.D., Ph.D.,  Executive Vice Chair of Pathology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told the WSJ that small hospitals are at greatest risk during a major outbreak of infectious-disease, because they often do not have enough expertise or resources in their clinical laboratory to mount a response. “This is a major patient-safety issue, right behind taking out the wrong kidney or giving 10 times the dose of a drug,” Laposata warned.

WSJ reporter Landro wrote that, similar to the growing shortage of primary care doctors and nurses, the increasing deficit in clinical laboratory professionals poses a threat to patient safety and quality of care. Besides testing for contagious bugs, lab professionals perform tests vital to 80% to 90% of diagnoses and treatment decisions.

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), which certifies lab professionals, says the job vacancy rate is already higher than 50% in some states, and openings can take up to year to fill. For example, Quest Diagnostics Incorporated, which employs about 8,500 lab professionals, has about 1,200 job openings nationwide, according to David W. Norgard, who is Vice President of Human Resources at Quest Diagnostics.

Barbara McKenna, M.D., FASCP, ASCP President, notes fewer young people are attracted to laboratory careers compared to other medical professions that require a four-year degree. This is due to both lower salaries and the profession’s low profile. A 2006 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated the median salary for skilled lab workers at $49,700, compared with $57,280 for registered nurses. The BLS reported in 2006 that U.S medical lab professionals totaled about 319,000. The government estimates that by 2012, 138,000 new lab professionals will be needed to replace retiring lab technicians, but only 50,000 trained workers will be ready to replace them.

Reporter Landro wrote that laboratory professionals work in obscurity, away from the public eye. Therefore, most people do not know these workers are highly trained workers whose work is critical to diagnosing heart attack, cancers, and other diseases.

With fewer college students entering clinical laboratory technology programs, many laboratory science programs have been discontinued over the last decade, observed Carol Wells, Director of the clinical laboratory sciences program at the University of Minneapolis in Minneapolis, in the WSJ article. Noting that a laboratory sciences education is expensive to provide, she estimated that about one-third fewer programs are offered today than 10 years ago.

Recruiter Valerie August, President of Valerie August & Associates, LLC, advises clinical laboratory professionals to study how nurses organized 20 years ago to improve their salaries and elevate respect for their profession. “As nursing salaries increased, so did hospital and patient appreciation for nursing talents and their impact on quality of healthcare,” she says. “Salaries need to be adjusted, in addition to med techs getting job satisfaction and recognition similar to nurses. Schools and hospitals also need to do much more to recruit people into the profession and restart training programs.”

It is noteworthy that a major publication like The Wall Street Journal took notice of the staffing shortage of clinical laboratory professionals. It shows that the clinical lab industry can get increased attention to this serious problem if it were more media-savvy. Lab managers and pathologists may find it useful to circulate a reprint of this Wall Street Journal story to their local newspapers and to the administrators at their hospital or health system to raise awareness of this critical situation.

Related Information:

Staff Shortages in Labs May Put Patients at Risk

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