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.
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.”
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.
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
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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.
In the United States and many countries around the world, primary goals for healthcare reform commonly center on better patient safety, improved health outcomes, and higher quality services. As clinicians in these countries actively work to achieve these goals, the clinical laboratories that serve them must respond to these efforts with appropriate lab tests and services.
Last week, Dark Daily Editor Robert Michel traveled to New Jersey to participate in a lab management meeting specifically organized to look at healthcare globalization and identify how this globalization trend is influencing clinical laboratory services. It was the annual meeting of the Customer Advisory Board (CAB) for the Pre-Analytical Services division of Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) (NYSE:BDX) of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. To foster productive discussion about globalization in healthcare and laboratory testing, BD arranged for presentations via teleconference from laboratory experts in India, South Africa, Belgium, and Mexico. Here are noteworthy points from each presentation:
INDIA: Healthcare services in this country are provided through government programs and the private sector. Annual spending on health is about US$37 billion. Government health services are delivered at the state level and India has 22 states. Experts identify the need for 896,000 more hospital beds in this nation and the private sector is responding to meet this goal. Because of the lack of healthcare resources in rural areas, telemedicine services are being pushed because it extends the reach of physicians and greatly increases their productivity. In the laboratory sector, there may be as many as 40,000 independent labs. Consolidation and acquisitions have created at least five major laboratory companies. There is a shortage of laboratory technologists. Phlebotomy is performed by medical technologists, each of who must have a four-year degree. Laboratory accreditation often involves an ISO standard and ISO 15189 is gaining favor.
SOUTH AFRICA: This government provides a minimum health insurance program to individuals who fall below a certain level of income. Above that income, private health insurance is the major source of healthcare. One challenge for the country is that it has at least 13 different races which are genetically unique. As genetic medicine advances, personalized services appropriate to these patients must be developed. HIV is a major factor in South Africa. Up to 90% of government health spending goes to HIV positive patients who undergo treatment for other health conditions. There is a shortage of pathologists in the public hospital sector of South Africa. Phlebotomy is done by trained nurses who attended college. Because it can take two or three days to move a specimen from some areas of the country, there is strong interest in point of care testing. (POCT). ISO 17025 is often used by private sector hospitals and laboratories for accreditation.
BELGIUM: As a developed nation with aging demographics, healthcare in this country faces many of the same challenges as the United States. Hospitals have their own laboratories and independent lab companies serve physician offices. There has been some consolidation of the independent lab sector. There is a shortage of both pathologists and technical laboratory staff in Belgium. Laboratories must be accredited with a quality management system (QMS) and ISO 17025 has been used. However, up to 20% of the nation’s laboratories are using ISO 15189 for their accreditation. Lean and Six Sigma is gaining wide acceptance and integrates well with accreditation under ISO standards.
Phlebotomy must be done only by physicians, nurses, and medical technologists.
MEXICO: Healthcare in this country reflects the extremes of wealth and poverty among the population. The government’s social security system provides minimum health benefits to everyone with a job. However, self pay and private health insurance play significant roles in the Mexican healthcare system. A national health priority is extending health services to remote areas of the country. There are still deaths from diseases such as cholera simply because individuals in these areas have no access to healthcare. Phlebotomy is done by nurses and medical technologists. Physicians do not draw blood in their offices, but refer patients to the collection sites operated by independent laboratories. Laboratory accreditation is mandatory in Mexico and ISO 9000 has been used. ISO 15189 is an option to meet accreditation requirements and growing numbers of laboratories are using ISO 15189.
Not surprisingly, everyone participating at the BD meeting on healthcare globalization was fascinated by the similarities and differences in healthcare and laboratory services in each of these four international presentations. Observation number one: Across these four countries, it was obvious that standards of care are tightening. Accreditation of laboratories is one example. In this regard, the quiet inroads being made by ISO 15189 in all four countries caught the attention of the American lab managers participating at this meeting. They recognized that other countries are moving rather rapidly to bring their laboratory services up to the level seen in developed countries.
Observation number two is that the adage “all healthcare is local” remains true. That was illustrated by the different national objectives. In India, use of telemedicine to support rural needs is different than in Mexico, where there are major efforts to create healthcare infrastructure in regions totally lacking any health services whatsoever. Similarly, In South Africa, meeting the health needs of so many HIV positive patients is the primary objective, whereas Belgium’s healthcare system is preparing to serve the many aging, but reasonably well-off individuals soon to reach their retirement years.
Further, it was pointed out that the demand for reliable and cheap point of care (POC) diagnostic tests by countries such as India, South Africa, and Mexico as a way to support rural care, would make these attractive and sizable markets for the IVD industry. Thus, more innovation in POC testing innovation is likely to occur first in those countries, rather than in the United States or Europe.