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A curious high school student conducts several chemistry experiments during a field trip and discovers an affinity for the sciences. Is this a fluke or could this student be on to something that may lead to a meaningful career and, more importantly, may aid in the healing process of an ailing profession?

by Kenneth Marques Thornton
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How a Focused Campaign Seeks to Address and Reverse the Growing Shortage of Lab Professionals

A curious high school student conducts several chemistry experiments during a field trip and discovers an affinity for the sciences. Is this a fluke or could this student be on to something that may lead to a meaningful career and, more importantly, may aid in the healing process of an ailing profession? Encounters like the one just described are critical, as the number of students pursuing the medical laboratory profession continues to decline. For every seven lab professionals who are exiting the profession due to retirement, there are only two being replaced 1. If this trend continues, we will not be able to adequately staff laboratories across the country.

Hospital management is investing in automation to help fill some of the full-time equivalent (FTE) shortages; however, it still may not be enough. Automated technology does improve productivity and reduce human error in many labs, but it cannot replace the expertise of a highly skilled lab professional. With unemployment rates near double-digit levels across most of the nation 2, one would think that such a critical role in the healthcare profession would be in high demand.

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Unlike other professions today, the demand for lab professionals actually exceeds supply with more than 40,000 current vacancies in the U.S 3. Keeping these staggering statistics in mind, awareness of the profession appears to be one of the reasons why people, especially our youth, are not pursuing opportunities in this field. But for those interested in science, research, healthcare or even engineering, it certainly appears to be an obvious occupational match. And if more of the younger generation enters the field, it will provide the medical laboratory profession with a much-needed boost and help address the growing shortage of this aging profession.

Studies indicate that 70 percent of all medical decisions are based on laboratory data and information that medical laboratory professionals provide4. Without this information, physicians cannot make accurate diagnoses or determine appropriate treatment for their patients. As a result, lab professionals must begin to increase the visibility of their contributions and be recognized by the broader healthcare community as viable members of the diagnostic teams and assist in the efforts to preserve this critical profession.

The laboratory workforce shortage is a recurring topic within the in vitro diagnostics industry and one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Frequently published statistics from many of the laboratory professional organizations reveal the serious nature of the shortage. As the aging workforce begins to retire in large numbers, educational medical technology programs cannot keep pace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a need for 14,000 new laboratory professionals annually. However, educational programs produce fewer than 5,000 new lab professionals each year5. This phenomenon has existed for many years with no relief in sight. With the exception of a few states where med tech programs are flourishing, these facilities are shutting their doors due to insufficient funding and the drastic decrease in enrollment.

To address this issue, the Labs are Vital™ (LRV) program was developed by Abbott 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, which include the partnerships with 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 and CLMA national conferences, LRV showcased its Student Outreach Program (SOP) to continue to fuel the campaign and bring awareness to the profession.

The SOP targets high school sophomores and juniors who are interested in science-related fields. Utilizing the #1 social network medium among 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 and med tech programs to coordinate venues where students and lab professionals can interact. As a result of this exchange, students are exposed to various aspects of the lab as different experiments and simulations are conducted with their active participation. During the session, visiting lab professionals also share their reallife experiences with the students, including the rewards and challenges of their profession. It is our hope that 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. This program should expand the choices for students upon graduation and to encourage them to pursue enrollment in a med tech program and begin the process of filling many empty seats of surviving programs across the country.

Changing the course of this unfortunate workforce shortage trend in laboratory science will demand the efforts of many people, but none more than lab professionals. The LRV campaign has contributed to that effort since its inception and has played an active role in preparing lab professionals through our National Advocacy Program. This program was designed to be a true complement to the SOP. It is comprised of laboratory professionals (educators and scientists) who have exhibited a sincere passion for lab science and have made the decision to partner with the LRV program. These individuals speak on behalf of the profession to help address the challenges they are experiencing and help facilitate the program. The advocacy program certifies its participants via online training, which affords them continuing educational credits upon completion. Speaker training and materials are also provided to advocates to equip them with the tools that are necessary to be effective in spreading the word.

It will undoubtedly take considerable time and effort to address the workforce shortage but it can be done, and lab professionals must take an active leadership role to ensure a favorable outcome. They must communicate their value to healthcare administrators in healthcare delivery and patient safety, to regulators and legislators on their role in the practice of lab science and patient care and to educators of their role in research and community and professional services. They must become better advocates for the profession and their role in healthcare as part of the diagnostic team.

Enlisting the support of the community can also contribute to the desired outcome of promoting labs and professionals and delivering the appropriate level of awareness about the occupational challenges that industry alone cannot accomplish. We must take a similar approach to the response to the shortage in the nursing profession and amplify the necessary awareness of this issue beyond the healthcare industry. This tactical approach will profoundly resonate with the general public benefitting from this work, as no human being is exempt from the services that are performed by a lab professional.

Let’s support our lab professionals and make a concerted public effort to apply some dedicated resources and effort to this campaign, because as we save this shrinking profession, we also preserve life—an inverse relationship that we must change in order to improve patient care.