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Rodney Rohde

Health Care

Medical Lab Staffing Shortages Have Reached the Breaking Point

Healthcare was shorthanded before the pandemic, and it’s only getting worse

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2022 - 13:02

Medical laboratory professionals form the backbone of healthcare and the public health system. They conduct some 13 billion laboratory medicine tests annually in the United States. As of February 2022, these individuals had also performed more than 900 million Covid-19 tests and counting during the pandemic.

Why should anyone care? Laboratory testing is the single highest-volume medical activity affecting Americans, and it drives about two-thirds of all medical decisions made by doctors and other healthcare professionals. Simply put, every time you enter a hospital or healthcare facility for care, your life is in the hands of a medical laboratory professional.

Like other healthcare and health professionals, these lab workers are experiencing dangerously low staffing numbers as a result of the pandemic. This includes a diverse group of professionals with varying levels of education and credentials, including phlebotomists, medical laboratory technicians, medical laboratory scientists, specialists, and the most recent addition to our profession, the advanced professional doctor of clinical laboratory science. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that employment of medical laboratory professionals is projected to grow 11 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.

I’ve worked in public health and medical laboratories for more than three decades. I specialize in the study of viruses and other microbes while also educating the next generation of medical laboratory scientists. Our profession was experiencing staffing shortages for more than two decades before the pandemic. Now, going into the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the omicron variant causing record high Covid-19 infection rates, this shortage has grown far worse.

The omicron effect

Before the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus surfaced in late November 2021, it seemed as if vaccines and other safety measures might enable the United States to turn the corner on the Covid-19 pandemic. But the highly contagious variant, with its ability to dodge the immune system’s defenses, changed that.

More than 1 million cases of Covid-19 were reported in the United States on Mon., Jan. 3, 2022, following the holiday backlog. This led to a seven-day average in the United States on Jan. 13, 2022, of almost 800,000 daily new cases—a new record that blew past the peak of last winter’s Covid-19 surge.

Fortunately, this tsunami of Covid-19 cases isn’t yet leading to higher death rates. But the skyrocketing Covid-19 infection rates are having a dangerous effect on patient care because of the sheer overwhelming numbers of hospitalizations.

The public almost always hears about the effect of the pandemic on frontline healthcare professionalsphysicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and others. But few people are familiar with the medical laboratory professionals who labor behind the scenes, conducting complex medical laboratory testing to keep the engine of the medical system running. Without them, physicians and others lose the necessary medical data to take care of patients.

Medical lab professionals are growing scarce as Covid-19 testing surges.

Voices from the medical laboratory

Recently, I corresponded with Edwin Beitz, a medical laboratory scientist, or MLS, who works at a 600-bed hospital in Pennsylvania. He noted that his hospital’s medical laboratory staffing has declined by 26 percent—the highest shortage they’ve ever experienced. He also said they are constantly training incoming staff, “an additional challenge when you’re short-staffed,” Beitz said. I’ve talked with medical laboratory colleagues across the United States who are reporting similar high rates of dangerous vacancies.

The reasons for this decline are—first and foremost—the increased stress that healthcare professionals have been under throughout the pandemic. They are truly burning out. Hospitals keep hiring and relocating professionals from other states and regions to fulfill staffing needs, but even that is beginning to fall short of the demand.

Although the pandemic has helped to raise visibility of the profession, it has created what I refer to as the “medical laboratory free agent.” Because of major staffing issues, hospitals are luring professionals away with crazy financial incentives. For example, Beitz reports that medical laboratory professionals are seeing signing bonuses of $15,000 for a two-year commitment, and two to three times their normal hourly rate to travel.

Brandy Gunsolus of Augusta University Medical Center in Georgia, a doctor of clinical laboratory science, similarly reported that her hospital is experiencing a 21-percent staffing shortage. Frighteningly, “many of the laboratory workers are leaving the field for good to careers in nonhealthcare-related areas,” such as real estate and sales, Gunsolus told me. The ongoing staffing shortages have a ripple effect on the education and training of current students, as well as on recruiting new graduate and traveler hires.

Unsustainable shortages

A recent survey by AMN Healthcare, which provides data on healthcare staffing needs, reports that three in four hospitals are seeking to hire temporary healthcare professionals. Medical laboratory professionals, respiratory therapists, and radiology technologists were the most in-demand, according to the survey. Sixteen states are experiencing critical staffing shortages in at least 25 percent of their hospitals, according to Health and Human Services data used in the report.

One often-cited reason for staffing shortages in the medical laboratory profession is low salaries. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that a registered nurse has an annual salary of $75,330, while a medical laboratory professional has an annual median salary of $54,180—almost 30-percent less.

Ongoing declines in new educational programs—in such states as Nevada and New Mexico, each of which has one program—are leading to a limited pipeline of new graduates for healthcare systems to employ.

In a 2020 laboratory professional survey, 85 percent reported burnout, nearly 60 percent reported inadequate compensation, and more than a third complained of inadequate staffing.

Ripple effects of the pandemic

The omicron variant has had a “pile-on” effect after two years of this pandemic. Healthcare professionals get sick, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mitigation strategies offer a continuum of options for addressing staffing shortages, including allowing workers to come back before symptoms cease.

Other effects of these staff shortages may include restricting testing to symptomatic or high-risk patients and limiting other forms of laboratory testing, which can lead to postponement of critical surgeries or procedures. Staff may also experience postponement of their vacation time, which could lead to further mental health strain.

Without medical laboratory professionals, every facet of our population’s health is at stake. Laboratory medicine informs almost every health issue, including diabetes, cancer, infections, labor and delivery, inherited disorders like sickle cell anemia, blood and organ typing, trauma, and elective surgeries and procedures. Without these workers, critical needs go unmet.

So when people sit in agonizingly long Covid-19 testing lines, it’s worth remembering the beleaguered medical laboratory workers who have completed nearly 1 billion of these tests—with no end in sight.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


About The Author

Rodney Rohde’s picture

Rodney Rohde

Rodney Rohde is a regents’ professor of the Texas State University system, and a university distinguished professor and chair for the Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) program in the College of Health Professions at Texas State University.