Representatives from almost 50 different clinical laboratories, professional associations, and societies came together this week to align efforts to expand the supply and retention of qualified laboratory scientists
FORT WORTH, TEXAS—Last week, representatives from a broad cross section of clinical laboratories, lab and pathology associations, public health laboratories, and lab regulatory bodies gathered specifically to identify ways to expand the number of skilled lab professionals.
COLA organized the “Workforce Action Alliance Summit,” a one-day gathering of key clinical laboratory stakeholders who share a common interest in developing initiatives that would directly increase the number of individuals choosing to pursue a career in laboratory medicine.
This is not a new problem, as the lack of trained laboratory scientists across all scientific disciplines has been acute for many years.
Call to Action
In a communication sent to invited participants, COLA’s CEO, Nancy Stratton, and COO, Kathy Nucifora, described the objective of the summit, writing:
“Clearly a call to collective action is required if we are to address the impending clinical laboratory workforce shortage. The past three years have demonstrated the significance of a resilient laboratory infrastructure, not only for the daily care of millions of Americans, but also during the global pandemic. The numerous efforts currently underway to resolve the shortage are unquestionably a component of the solution. Many, however, believe that these efforts are insufficient to close the gap between the projected number of new entrants into the profession, the rate at which those currently in the profession are departing, and the future demand for laboratory testing.”
Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report was a participant at COLA’S workforce summit. The Dark Report regularly profiles clinical laboratory organizations that have developed innovative and productive initiatives designed to increase the number of students choosing to train as medical technologists (MTs), clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), medical laboratory technologists (MLTs) and other skilled lab positions.
In materials distributed at the summit, the ongoing gap between demand for skilled lab professionals and the supply was illustrated thusly:
“The US Department of Labor estimates 320,000 bachelors and associates degreed laboratory professionals are working in the United States. If each of those professionals worked a standard 40-year career, the natural annual attrition of 2.5% would require 8,000 new professionals to maintain their current numbers. This exceeds the current output of accredited educational programs by more than 1,000 annually.”
Case Studies of Success
Over the course of the day, participants at the summit heard about the successes of certain laboratory organizations designed to get more students into training programs, supported by the educational courses required for them to become certified in their chosen area of laboratory medicine. These case studies centered around several themes:
Obtaining funding specifically to establish an MT/CLS training program to increase the number of candidates in a region. One example involved ARUP Laboratories and its success at working with a local Congressional representative to get a $3 million federal grant funded as part of a larger legislative package.
The medical laboratory scientist (MLS) program at Saint Louis University (SLU) worked with Quest Diagnostics to launch an accelerated bachelor’s degree program. The 16-month program combines online academic courses with intensive hands-on learning and clinical experiences in Quest’s Lenexa, Kansas, laboratory. The first students in this accelerated degree program began their studies in the spring semester of 2023.
During the afternoon, working groups addressed ways that lab organizations can collaborate to increase recruitment and retention of laboratory scientists across all disciplines of lab medicine. This input was synthesized into action planning for the three priorities that can lead to expanding the lab workforce.
By day’s end, several working groups were organized with specific next steps. COLA is taking the lead in managing this initiative and giving it momentum. All clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists are welcome to participate in the Workforce Action Alliance (WAA). Anyone wishing to learn more can contact COLA by clicking here, calling 800-981-9883, or by visiting https://education.cola.org/contact-us-page.
Clinical laboratory scientist who aided in the investigation compared DNA test results with publicly available genetic information
In an interesting twist in the solving of crime, genetic test results—along with help from a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) turned amateur genealogist—guided relatives of Melissa Highsmith to her whereabouts after she was allegedly kidnapped as a toddler over half a century ago. According to The Guardian, the CLS helped locate Melissa by “interpreting the key DNA results and mining publicly available records.”
Highsmith’s abduction was one of the oldest missing person cases in the country and demonstrates how clinical laboratory skills can be applied outside the laboratory to help solve other problems—in this case, helping a family search for a kidnapped daughter—using genetic testing technologies that until recently were not available to the general public.
Thanks to a 23andMe at-home DNA test—and a tenacious clinical laboratory scientist/amateur genealogist—Melissa Highsmith (shown above at time of kidnapping and today) has been reunited with her birth family. This shows how genetic testing is being used in remarkable ways outside of the clinical laboratory. (Photo copyright: Highsmith family/People.)
Back in 1971, Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, to hire a babysitter to care for her 21-month-old daughter. Apantenco hired Ruth Johnson to babysit her daughter without meeting the woman in person. Because Apantenco had to be at work, the child was handed over to Johnson by Apantenco’s roommate. The babysitter then allegedly abducted Melissa and disappeared with her.
Melissa’s family reported her missing to the police and searched for the snatched baby for more than 51 years. The family even organized a Facebook page called “Finding Melissa Highsmith” and sought outside assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in locating their lost relative, according to the New York Post.
The police and the FBI also got involved in the case, but few leads emerged over the decades.
Then, in September of 2022, Melissa’s family received a new lead regarding her location based on her father’s 23andMe DNA test results. Those results, along with a birthmark and date of birth, confirmed that Melissa was alive and well and residing in the Charleston, South Carolina area.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Melissa was reunited with her mother, her father Jeffrie Highsmith, and two of her four siblings at a church in Fort Worth. She hopes to meet her remaining two siblings over the Christmas holidays.
“I can’t describe my feelings. I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t ever think I would see again,” Apantenco told Saint Paul, Minnesota, television station KSTP.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Melissa’s sister Victoria Garner in a family statement. “I was overjoyed, and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister [was] right in front of me and that we found her,” The Guardian reported.
Clinical Laboratory Scientist Aids in the Investigation
The 23andMe test results alerted the family to the existence of a few unknown relatives that could be connected to the DNA of Melissa’s father. The family then contacted a genealogist and clinical laboratory scientist from Minnesota named Lisa Jo Schiele to help them interpret the results and potentially locate the missing woman. Schiele compared the DNA results with public records to help find Melissa Highsmith.
“I was able to use what we call traditional genealogy to find marriage records and things like that to find where Melissa was right now,” Schiele told KSTP. “At first glance, you look at these matches, but I’m like, ‘Holy cow, is this too good to be true?’ I’m very happy to help them navigate all of this.”
One of Melissa’s sisters, Sharon Highsmith, stated that her mother experienced deep feelings of guilt after Melissa’s abduction and had even faced accusations that she had something to do with the disappearance of her daughter.
“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired, so she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon said in a family statement. “I’m grateful we have vindication for my mom,” The Guardian reported.
“I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake,” Melissa, who now resides in Fort Worth, told KSTP.
“It’s a miracle,” Apantenco said.
“A Christmas miracle,” Melissa added.
Due to the statute of limitations, which expired 20 years after Melissa turned 18, the babysitter who allegedly took Melissa cannot be criminally prosecuted.
“I’m angry our family was robbed for 51 years,’’ Melissa told Fort Worth news station WFAA.
This remarkable story illustrates how clinical laboratory skills combined with genetic testing results can be used outside of medical laboratory testing purposes to aid in solving criminal cases and other mysteries involving missing people.
Further advances in DNA testing combined with genetic databases that include DNA from greater numbers of people could result in more reunions involving missing persons who were identified because of genetic matching.
The 2023 conference comes as clinical laboratories, diagnostics companies, and anatomic pathology practices wrestle with budgets that are strained by inflation, supply chain woes, and the faltering financial performance of parent hospitals and health systems. Meanwhile, lab hiring managers continue to face a severe staffing shortage of diagnostics employees.
“The current twin trends of hospitals losing money and labs struggling to maintain adequate staffing is without parallel in my 30 years of covering the clinical laboratory, diagnostics, and pathology sectors,” said Robert Michel, Founder of the Executive War College and Editor-in-Chief at Dark Daily. “This is a perfect storm that threatens the ability of labs to sustain high-quality testing services in a financially-sustainable manner. At the 2023 Executive War College, we are going to help participants get through this predicament by giving them innovative insights and best-in-class expertise they can take back and implement in their clinical labs and pathology groups.”
“Staffing and supply chain difficulties are not the only burdens facing clinical laboratories,” said Robert Michel (above), Founder of the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management. “Equally stressful forces are altering how providers, payers, and healthcare consumers access medical laboratory testing and pay for those services.” (Photo copyright: The Dark Intelligence Group.)
Earning New Revenue Will Take Center Stage at 2023 Executive War College
The full agenda for the 2023 Executive War College has not yet been released, but attendees can expect to see keynote presentations and sessions devoted to pressing topics in the diagnostics and laboratory industries. Among them is how to best position the clinical lab as a growing revenue source.
“With financial pressures mounting, we intend to present cutting-edge advice from innovative clinical laboratories, diagnostics companies, and pathology practices about how they earn new revenue—whether that be through creating business opportunities in the community, uncovering new test reimbursements, or using technology to improve existing processes,” Michel explained.
Last spring’s gathering of the Executive War College featured 10 keynotes, 55 sessions, and three post-conference workshops. Participants at the upcoming 2023 Executive War College conference can expect a similar bonanza of educational and professional development options, as well as collaborative networking breaks, luncheons, and receptions.
“The chance to meet innovative peers from across the country, share lab-related challenges with them, and compare effective solutions makes the Executive War College a cost-effective investment for any laboratory administrator, executive, or business-minded pathologist,” Michel added.
Diagnostics Services Will Be Better Reflected at 2023 Conference
For the first time, the conference’s moniker directly reflects the diagnostic work associated with clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
“Long-time attendees will notice that we tweaked the Executive War College’s full title to emphasize ‘diagnostics.’ That term is an important addition,” Michel noted.
“In the recent past, ‘clinical laboratory’ and ‘anatomic pathology’ were terms that sufficiently described the profession of laboratory medicine,” he continued. “However, a subtle but significant change has occurred in recent years. The term ‘diagnostics’ has become a common description for medical testing, along with other diagnostic areas such as radiology and imaging.”
Keep an eye on the conference’s website, ExecutiveWarCollege.com, for updates about the upcoming program and to see the session topics and speakers as they are confirmed and announced.
“The Executive War College is the top gathering for lab leaders to learn from the profession’s best innovators and gain insights they will need to keep their laboratories at the cutting edge of clinical excellence in a financially sustainable manner,” Michel concluded.
Register today to ensure places for you and your management team at the 2023 Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management. Click here for early registration discounts.
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.”
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):
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.”
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.
Screening and analysis of ocean samples also identified a possible missing link in how the RNA viruses evolved
An international team of scientists has used genetic screening and machine learning techniques to identify more than 5,500 previously unknown species of marine RNA viruses and is proposing five new phyla (biological groups) of viruses. The latter would double the number of RNA virus phyla to 10, one of which may be a missing link in the early evolution of the microbes.
Though the newly-discovered viruses are not currently associated with human disease—and therefore do not drive any current medical laboratory testing—for virologists and other microbiologists, “a fuller catalog of these organisms is now available to advance scientific understanding of how viruses evolve,” said Dark Daily Editor-in-Chief Robert Michel.
“While scientists have cataloged hundreds of thousands of DNA viruses in their natural ecosystems, RNA viruses have been relatively unstudied,” wrote four microbiologists from Ohio State University (OSU) who participated in the study in an article they penned for The Conversation.
In contrast to the better-understood DNA virus, an RNA virus contains RNA instead of DNA as its genetic material, according to Samanthi Udayangani, PhD, in an article she penned for Difference Between. Examples of RNA viruses include:
One major difference, she explains, is that RNA viruses mutate at a higher rate than do DNA viruses.
The OSU scientists identified the new species by analyzing a database of RNA sequences from plankton collected during a series of ocean expeditions aboard a French schooner owned by the Tara Ocean Foundation.
“Plankton are any aquatic organisms that are too small to swim against the current,” the authors explained in The Conversation. “They’re a vital part of ocean food webs and are common hosts for RNA viruses.”
The team’s screening process focused on the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) gene, “which has evolved for billions of years in RNA viruses, and is absent from other viruses or cells,” according to the OSU news story.
“RdRp is supposed to be one of the most ancient genes—it existed before there was a need for DNA,” Zayed said.
The RdRp gene “codes for a particular protein that allows a virus to replicate its genetic material. It is the only protein that all RNA viruses share because it plays an essential role in how they propagate themselves. Each RNA virus, however, has small differences in the gene that codes for the protein that can help distinguish one type of virus from another,” the study authors explained.
The screening “ultimately identified over 44,000 genes that code for the virus protein,” they wrote.
Identifying Five New Phyla
The researchers then turned to machine learning to organize the sequences and identify their evolutionary connections based on similarities in the RdRp genes.
“The more similar two genes were, the more likely viruses with those genes were closely related,” they wrote.
The technique classified many of the sequences within the five previously known phyla of RNA viruses:
But the researchers also identified five new phyla—including two dubbed “Taraviricota” and “Arctiviricota”—that “were particularly abundant across vast oceanic regions,” they wrote. Taraviricota is named after the Tara expeditions and Arctiviricota gets its name from the Arctic Ocean.
They speculated that Taraviricota “might be the missing link in the evolution of RNA viruses that researchers have long sought, connecting two different known branches of RNA viruses that diverged in how they replicate.”
In addition to the five new phyla, the researchers are proposing at least 11 new classes of RNA viruses, according to the OSU story. The scientists plan to issue a formal proposal to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the body responsible for classification and naming of viruses.
Studying RNA Viruses Outside of Disease Environments
“As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, RNA viruses can cause deadly diseases. But RNA viruses also play a vital role in ecosystems because they can infect a wide array of organisms, including microbes that influence environments and food webs at the chemical level,” wrote the four study authors in The Conversation. “Mapping out where in the world these RNA viruses live can help clarify how they affect the organisms driving many of the ecological processes that run our planet. Our study also provides improved tools that can help researchers catalog new viruses as genetic databases grow.”
This remarkable study, which was partially funded by the US National Science Foundation, will be most intriguing to virologists and microbiologists. However, clinical laboratories also should be interested in the fact that the catalog of known viruses has just expanded by 5,500 types of RNA viruses.