Reversing the Lab Workforce Shortage Trend

The laboratory workforce shortage is a recurring topic within the in vitro diagnostics industry and one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. As the aging workforce begins to retire in large numbers, educational programs cannot keep pace.

Sobering Statistics

Frequently published statistics from laboratory professional organizations reveal the serious nature of the shortage. Here are a few:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a need for 14,000 new laboratory professionals annually with educational programs producing less than 5,000 new lab professionals each year.1
  • For every seven lab professionals exiting the profession due to retirement, only two are being replaced.2
  • With unemployment rates near double-digit levels across most of the nation,3 one would think that such a critical role in the healthcare profession would be in high demand. Unlike any other profession, demand actually exceeds supply with over 40,000 lab vacancies currently in the U.S.2

If this trend continues, we will not be able to appropriately staff laboratories across the country.

Shortage Factors

Many factors contribute to the workforce shortage; however, one that stands above the rest is the lack of appeal of the lab profession to our younger generation.

Awareness appears to be a reason why people (especially our youth) are not pursuing opportunities in this field. And if they are aware of the opportunities that exist in this profession, does it contain the necessary criteria to spark their interest? For those interested in science, healthcare or even engineering, the field of laboratory medicine certainly appears to be an occupational match.

Industry Response

In pursuit of addressing this issue, Abbott developed and sponsored the Labs are Vital™ (LRV) program in 2006. The mission of LRV is to positively impact the laboratory profession and ultimately patient care by (1) elevating the profile of the lab and its professionals, (2) extending the lab’s influence and impact within the healthcare community and (3) addressing key issues facing the profession.

This program has approximately 15,000 supporters worldwide that include the partnerships of many professional organizations that support the lab industry such as ASCP, ASCLS, AACC, CLMA, AABB and APHL to name a few. This year at the AACC/ASCLS expo in Atlanta, LRV showcased our Student Outreach Program to fuel the campaign.

Student Outreach

The program targets sophomores and juniors at the high school level interested in science-related fields. Utilizing the No. 1 social network medium amongst adolescents, LRV has more than 3,000 friends on Facebook, and the numbers continue to grow.

The supporters of LRV work with local healthcare facilities to coordinate venues for students and lab professionals to interact. As a result of this exchange, students are exposed to various aspects of the lab as they actively participate in different experiments and simulations. Hopefully, the outcome of the time spent together will resonate with the students and result in a heightened interest in lab science as a possible career option.

Changing the Tide

Changing the course of this unfortunate workforce shortage trend in laboratory science will be like redirecting a barge at sea. It will undoubtedly take some time, effort and cooperation.

As evident in the shortage in the nursing profession, we must take a similar approach and amplify awareness of this issue beyond the healthcare industry. Without a doubt, it will require a louder voice from lab professionals to communicate their value to healthcare administrators, regulators and legislators. Enlisting the support of the community will further contribute to uplifting the lab and delivering the appropriate level of awareness around the occupational challenges.

This is definitely a general public issue, not only a lab/healthcare industry issue, and we must treat it as such. Studies indicate that 70% of all medical decisions are based on laboratory data and information that medical laboratory professionals provide.5 Without this diagnostic information, physicians cannot make accurate diagnoses or determine appropriate treatment.

The profession and industry must dedicate resources and effort behind this campaign because, as we save this shrinking profession, we will preserve and enlarge lives.

Kenneth Marques Thornton is director of Brand Marketing, Diagnostics Division of Abbott. For more information about the Labs Are Vital campaign, go to labsarevital.com


References
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos096.htm#outlook
2. Art Sponseller, president/CEO of the Hospital Council quoted on Abbott Laboratories Press Release: New Training Programs Help Ease Lab Staff Shortages. http://www.abbott.com/global/url/pressRelease/en_US/60.5:5/Press_Release_0885.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos096.htm#outlook
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos096.htm#outlook
5. Forsman RW. Why is the laboratory an afterthought for managed care organizations? Clin Chem 1996;42:813-816.

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