The clinical lab workforce is shrinking while concerns are growing
The clinical laboratory workforce plays a vital role in the healthcare system. Clinical laboratory practitioners detect and diagnose disease or pre-disease states, as well as monitor the progress and results of treatment. Over the last 10 years, there has been a growing concern among employers, educators, professional associations and policymakers that a shortage in the number of clinical laboratory workers was looming. The aging of the population increases in healthcare technology and increases in the number of available clinical laboratory tests are expected to increase the demand for clinical laboratory workers.
Conducted every two years, the ASCP Vacancy Survey serves as the primary source for those most interested in the laboratory workforce. Overall, the 2014 survey respondents represent more than 30,000 medical laboratory employees across the United States. When looking at current vacancy rates, anticipated retirements and hiring challenges, the survey is clear: action must continue to address the future workforce needs of the nation’s medical laboratories.
The ASCP 2014 Vacancy Survey findings show that overall vacancy rates increased in all departments of the medical laboratory, except for cytology and cytogenetics. It also shows higher anticipated retirement rates for both staff and supervisors. Nationally, the vacancy rate was highest for phlebotomy departments for both employees and supervisors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment of phlebotomists is projected to grow 27 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. With its current high vacancy rates and expected demand, phlebotomy is a specific area of concern.
The areas of the medical laboratories that have the highest numbers of staff are the same areas that will be hardest hit by retirements. These areas include chemistry, which had the overall highest percentage of employees anticipated to retire in the next five years, at 23.60 percent; hematology at 19.51 percent; microbiology at 19.48 percent; and blood banks at 19.19 percent. These figures are concerning with many labs facing the dual challenge of losing experienced leadership and not having enough staff.
From a geographic perspective, the Far West region reported the highest overall vacancy rate compared with other regions, while the Northeast had the lowest vacancy rate. This regional data shows that the workforce challenge is more striking in less densely populated communities. This is consistent with overall medical and hospital hiring trends.
When hiring laboratory personnel, respondents reported that the top three difficulties they encounter are other employers offering better pay (19.50 percent); applicants do not possess necessary certification, education, and/or skills to perform the work (18.20 percent); and increasing competition for well-trained personnel (17.39 percent). Workforce shortages increase competition for the most qualified workers and leave employers with the choice of offering more or possibly hiring less qualified candidates.
The responsibilities of positions not filled in a certain amount of time are temporarily assigned to other staff at 40.40 percent or are left open at 34.03 percent. The use of temporary personnel to fill workforce gaps is very low at 8.4 percent, largely due to cost. Adding additional duties to professionals already working at high capacity is not a solution and will only contribute to recruitment and retention issues in the future.
Attracting New Students
As laboratory professionals retire, there is still a significant effort nationwide to recruit more young professionals to enter the field of medical laboratory science. For years, ASCP has had several initiatives in place to address the medical laboratory workforce shortage, a few of which include: ASCP Career Ambassadors, a program sponsored by Roche where ASCP members visit pre-college students across the country to talk about medical laboratory careers; a collaboration with the Clinton Global Initiative to expand the pipeline of individuals pursuing medical laboratory careers in New York State, a template for other initiatives nationwide; and What’s My Next, a comprehensive strategy targeted toward science-oriented high school students that positions laboratory medicine as a potential career path. A key component is the whatsmynext.com website that engages and educates students with profiles of real lab professionals and pathologists, interactive mini-games and a Lab Hero Challenge that follows a patient’s journey as it relates to breast cancer.
ASCP is also a partner with the Abbott-sponsored “Labs are Vital” program to positively impact the laboratory profession and, ultimately, patient care by elevating the profile of the lab and its professionals, extending the lab’s influence and impact within the healthcare community and addressing key issues facing the profession.
ASCP is also investing in growing the next generation of laboratory leaders. Efforts include its 40 Under Forty program that recognizes 40 members under the age of 40 with achievements and qualities that are vital to the pathology and laboratory sciences. ASCP also offers Lab Management University (LMU), an online certificate program presented in collaboration with the American Pathology Foundation that improves competency in laboratory management, and LMU Advanced, a new collection of advanced topics in laboratory management. These efforts are critical to not only attracting new members of the laboratory medical profession but keeping them engaged by growing their skills and leadership abilities to advance their careers.
Medical laboratory testing plays a crucial role in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of disease. The laboratory workforce helps determine the presence, extent or absence of disease and monitors the effectiveness of treatment. With an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of all decisions regarding a patient’s diagnosis and treatment, hospitals admit and discharge based on laboratory tests. It is vital that this workforce be sustained and expanded to meet growing needs.