read time: 3 minutes
Management & Operations
Staffing your clinical laboratory with highly qualified professionals is challenging in the best of times. But that challenge has grown exponentially in recent years, as hiring managers face a “perfect storm” of factors that have reduced the number of scientists and technicians at the same time as demand for their services has grown. Beginning now and continuing for the foreseeable future, labs will need to develop innovative approaches to staffing in order to meet those demands.
A large and growing gap
The gap between staffing needs and workforce availability is large and growing. There is a “critical workforce shortage of medical laboratory professionals,” according to a 2020 report from the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science.1 The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of laboratory positions is expected to grow by 7% or more in the coming decade, and that there will be more than 25,000 openings each year for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians.2 Labs are often in competition with one another when looking for new personnel, and those entering the workforce have their choice of where to work. Generous signing bonuses have become common incentives for new hires.
According to the report, factors that have contributed to the employee gap include:
- An aging workforce, with a high proportion of medical laboratory scientists close to retirement
- A dramatic reduction in training programs, largely driven by high cost and low profit
- Increased demand for testing, due to an aging population and expansion of test availability, especially for molecular tests
The consequences of this shortage of trained personnel are significant. You may see some or all of the following hypothetical cascade of consequences in your hospital lab:
- Labs operating at reduced capacity due to staffing shortages
- Increased overtime for existing staff, leading to increased burnout, early retirements, changes in career, and even more turnover
- Staff rises to the challenge, but at the expense of their work/life balance, which is ultimately unsustainable
- Reliance on temporary and traveling employees who can rarely contribute to the full scope of needs, may not stay long, and require investments in training that don’t end up paying off
- Inability to keep up with demand begins to affect patient care
No easy solutions, but some promising options
The solution to this crisis in clinical lab staffing is not obvious or easy. In 2021, the American Society for Clinical Pathology issued a report in which it outlined steps to improve workforce recruitment and retention, including increasing financial incentives and scheduling flexibility; increasing on-the-job training; and providing opportunities for career progression.2 The same report called for an increase in the visibility of the clinical lab profession, and promotion of increased diversity in the workplace, in order to attract more candidates to the field. Similar steps were recommended by the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science, including establishment of clear paths for career advancement within the profession to increase recruitment and retention.3
Such steps are likely to help in the long-term, but many labs need solutions for staffing shortages that cannot wait for major changes in the field. For those institutions, partnering with a diagnostic reference lab may offer a way to mitigate these challenges. The right partner can reduce strain on staff and deliver actionable results on a timely and predictable schedule. Further services might include an audit of in-house testing menus to optimize current resources, and an evaluation of workflows and staffing strategies to enhance productivity. Lab management, shared services, collaborative outreach, and lab stewardship opportunities extend the partner model even further, offering customized solutions for an institution’s unique needs that hold the promise of reducing costs, increasing efficiency, and improving patient care.
The clinical lab staffing crisis is not going to go away soon and is likely to worsen before it improves. Healthcare executives can keep their clinical lab services at the highest level by understanding the forces that underlie the crisis and addressing those challenges head on, through proactive steps that make the most of their valuable staff, and finding the right diagnostic partner for support when needed.