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.
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.
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