The shortage of qualified laboratory professionals has been straining clinical laboratories for years, but COVID-19 has brought this shortage to a tipping point. As has been well-documented, the pandemic has taken its toll on health care workers, and many baby boomers are retiring earlier than anticipated, leaving health care providers—including clinical labs—struggling to find workers.
The American Society for Clinical Pathology’s (ASCP) 2019 wage and 2020 vacancy surveys showed that although salaries are increasing for most laboratory occupations, vacancies are at their highest levels when compared to previous surveys. Overall, the highest vacancy rate is seen in the chemistry/toxicology department (12.7 percent). This department is also expected to have the highest percentage of employees that anticipate to retire in the next five years (20.4 percent).
“We need to mobilize many volunteers who can work with their hospitals, local universities, high schools, and colleges to engage both laboratory professionals and the broader community.”
A recent medical laboratory workforce study conducted by the University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies and ASCP found that challenges in the laboratory field include a declining number of accredited education programs, shortages of qualified personnel, and increased demands due to vacancy rates, testing volumes, and task automation. In their Blueprint for Action, the groups identify 12 potential workforce initiatives to boost the lab workforce, broken into three main areas: increasing the visibility of the medical laboratory profession; retention and recruitment; and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To address these needs, ASCP recently formed a Workforce Steering Committee, whose goal is to develop innovative solutions to promote pathways to careers in pathology and laboratory medicine.
“Laboratory professionals have to escalate advocacy efforts for the profession,” says Susan Harrington, PhD, medical director in microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic Laboratories and chair of the committee. “We need to mobilize many volunteers who can work with their hospitals, local universities, high schools, and colleges to engage both laboratory professionals and the broader community.”
The committee consists of 12 members, representing diverse groups from within the field of lab medicine. The group is planning to engage with other medical laboratory professional organizations to raise awareness of the profession and encourage more young people to consider lab medicine as a career path.
“The blueprint is a road map, but we have to start prioritizing tasks because we can’t do them all at once,” says Harrington. “And we can’t do it alone, so we will be working with others to address the shortage.”
Reaching students early
One way to build visibility of the medical laboratory profession is getting students interested in the field of laboratory medicine while they are still in high school, believes James Payne, CPT, a member of the workforce committee, a former research technician and a high school teacher. Payne has developed the Medical Laboratory Assisting and Phlebotomy Program at the WEMOCO Technical Education Center in Spencerport, NY. The program is a two-year, 2.5 hour per day laboratory science training program for juniors and seniors in high school that prepares them for direct employment in a medical laboratory.
“Often, I hear that we are called the ‘hidden profession’ in medicine,” says Payne. “Being the hidden profession has a major downside because young people do not even know that our industry exists. Students go through high school thinking that they like science and medicine, but believe their only options are to become a doctor, nurse, dentist, or a non-laboratory medicine scientist. They have no idea about the wonderful world of laboratory medicine and the large number of career options at each level of post-secondary education.”
Payne believes students should have the opportunity to visit a medical laboratory and “see the sights, smells, sounds, and workflow” to see if they might be interested in pursuing laboratory medicine as a career. This could be done with a field trip or a longer shadowing experience.
"Addressing the shortage of qualified laboratory professionals will take time and patience."
“I think we also need to connect stories of patients not just from the treatment angle, but also from the laboratory angle, such as how the samples are collected and processed and how the actual medical test was performed that allowed the physician to decide on the treatment plan,” says Payne.
As an outsider to the medical laboratory, Payne thinks he can provide insight into the field from a different perspective. For example, he believes that by getting more young people into medical laboratory positions such as phlebotomy and medical laboratory assisting, they might move onto other positions in the lab.
“These entry level positions are like the ‘minor league team’ in the lab, while positions that require college are the ‘major league,’” he says. “If we can fill the minor league, it will be much easier to support a successful major league.”
For now, the workforce committee is working to establish short- and long-term goals and determining which initiatives should be prioritized, says Harrington, noting that addressing the shortage of qualified laboratory professionals will take time and patience.
How will the committee measure success? “That’s a challenging question,” she admits. “Subjectively, we’ll know the labor shortage is improving when we feel less pain. The ASCP vacancy and wage surveys are also good indicators. We hope to see vacancies decrease and wages increase. Then we’ll know we are making progress.”