Help wanted: lab workers [Commentary]

A health care crisis is quietly unfolding in our nation's laboratories. This crisis has developed largely off the public's radar screen. If not resolved, it can adversely impact the lives of every American. The crisis in question: alarming shortages within the laboratory workforce.

Lab testing has an estimated impact on over 70 percent of medical decisions. That percentage will grow as baby boomers retire and preventive coverage — including screening tests performed by labs — increases as part of federal health care reform.

But according to an annual survey performed by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), laboratory professions are seeing an average vacancy rate of 5 to 6 percent, depending on the department. Federal statistics also document the shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 40,000 current lab jobs are vacant in the United States.

The size of projected shortages is even more daunting. According to the most recent BLS study in 2012, 7,100 new jobs in medical- and clinical-laboratory technology will be created annually by 2022. In addition, the current workforce is expected to have a replacement rate of 26 percent, totaling an additional 8,500 jobs needed annually for the 10-year period. Although these figures indicate a need for approximately 15,600 new laboratory professionals annually, educational programs are producing only about 8,200 graduates per year.

As the previous replacement rate indicates, the current lab workforce is aging. Baby boomers in laboratory positions have been delaying retirement due to economic uncertainties, but many departments reported anticipated retirements in the next 24 months. Among the hardest hit will be the immunology and chemistry/toxicology departments with 10 percent of employees anticipating retirement.

Maryland — home of Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Maryland Medical System and the National Institutes of Health — is not immune to these pressures. Washington D.C. and Baltimore are ranked the ninth and 10th metropolitan areas with the highest level of medical and clinical laboratory technicians, respectively.

Fortunately, the state's educational system has responded. For example, many schools, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore, offer a robust menu of scholarships for aspiring lab students. But the lab workforce shortage is a problem which neither government nor academia can solve by themselves. The lab community itself needs to step up.

In 2013, COLA, which accredits many of these labs, responded to the crisis locally through an endowment of $25,000 to support Howard County Community College's newly created medical-technician program. By sponsoring curricula, COLA hopes to attract more students to the profession and to create awareness of the importance of quality lab practices in the delivery of safe, effective health care. In addition, COLA has been participating in local STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs to introduce younger children to careers in medical- and clinical-laboratory technology.

Our goal is to create a sustainable recruitment and education model that can be duplicated across the country.

I strongly encourage each hospital, research or physician-owned lab, along with manufacturers of laboratory products, to launch its own workforce development initiatives. It is time for the lab community to apply its energies, creativity and proven problem-solving skills toward addressing an issue which concerns everyone.

The good news is that we have a compelling story to tell. US News and World Report chose "clinical laboratory technicians" as one of the best health care careers of 2013. The national average salary for such technicians is $37,240, according to BLS, and $58,640 for clinical laboratory technologists.

Maryland is already a leader in the area of health care. Growing the lab workforce is another opportunity to demonstrate that leadership. We can do that through establishing mentoring relationships, funding scholarships and by engaging each other and soliciting ideas.

Most importantly, we can do that by simply spreading the word that laboratory careers are lucrative, stimulating, and they make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Douglas A. Beigel is Chief Executive Officer of COLA (cola.org), a Columbia-based nonprofit whose purpose is to promote excellence in laboratory medicine and patient care through a program of voluntary education, consultation and accreditation. His email is dbeigel@cola.org.


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