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Clinical Labs Still Face Staffing Issues as COVID Declines

The clinical laboratory industry continues to face an unprecedented staffing crisis that is putting a strain on healthcare systems across the country. This shortage is being driven by several factors, including an aging workforce, a lack of training programs, and a significant demand for lab services.

Maggie Morrissey Headshot

Maggie Morrissey, Director of Recruiting and Staffing, LLS

Maggie Morrissey, Director of Recruiting and Staffing for Lighthouse Lab Services, says this is an especially difficult time for some labs as they navigate the upcoming end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) on May 11 and reckon with the decline of that line of testing.

“At the beginning of 2022 and still late into the year we were in a place where we were still seeing a lot of molecular COVID testing,” says Morrissey. “But now with the prevalence of home testing and federal reimbursement drying up, we’re seeing a good number of these labs closing shop after deciding not to pivot to infectious disease or another line of testing.”

The immense focus on COVID testing over a period of years led a number of young professionals to enter the workforce with a skillset focused on molecular testing, which is now limiting their opportunities as labs seek to hire for other sub-specialties. This, combined with an aging workforce and an ongoing significant demand for laboratory services, continues to lead to an overall shortage of medical lab professionals.


Examining factors impacting staffing

One of the most significant contributors to the staffing crisis in the clinical laboratory industry is the aging workforce. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), more than 40% of laboratory professionals are over the age of 50. As these workers approach retirement age, there are simply not enough young professionals to fill the gap. This is a major concern for healthcare systems, as the demand for laboratory services is only increasing with the aging of the population.

The aging workforce also brings increased focus on the lack of training programs for new clinical laboratory professionals. Many universities have closed their clinical laboratory science programs in recent years, and there are simply not enough new graduates to replace retiring workers. Additionally, lab professionals are not as visible in the healthcare system as doctors and nurses, which has led to a lack of awareness among students about the opportunities available in this field.

To alleviate this, Morrissey said industry-wide advocacy is needed, similar to the attention for new training programs the nursing profession received more than a decade ago.

“One thing that I would love to see is more focus on staffing issues and increasing the number of training programs to trying to push forward the underlying need for more technologists,” Morrissey says. “A lot of recent advocacy from lab groups has been focused on things like reimbursement or federal legislation, which is important, but doesn’t address the industry’s underlying issue.”

The consistently high demand for laboratory services is also exacerbating the staffing crisis. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an unprecedented demand for laboratory testing, which put a significant strain on the workforce. However, while much of that demand for COVID testing has declined in 2023 as the end of the PHE approaches, the overall utilization of lab services remains high.

The staffing shortage not only puts a strain on healthcare systems, but also affects patient care. With a shortage of laboratory professionals, testing turnaround times can be delayed, which can result in longer hospital stays or delays in decision-making for patients. Additionally, there is a risk of errors and inaccuracies in laboratory testing when workers are overworked and understaffed.


Addressing the staffing shortage

To address the staffing shortage in the clinical laboratory industry, several strategies should be pursued. As previously mentioned, there is a significant need to increase funding for training programs, which will encourage more students to pursue careers in laboratory science. Additionally, healthcare systems can offer incentives for laboratory professionals, such as competitive salaries and benefits, to attract and retain talent.

Morrissey says labs should also be open to considering candidates who may not have their ideal background or experience but are willing to train on the job to learn a new role.

“If a lab is open to training a candidate who maybe has only worked in a COVID lab, within six months you will have a candidate that is relatively well trained for that new role, and that candidate will be able to remain in the workforce with a new skill set,” Morrissey says. However, she acknowledges this pathway may only be realistic for larger labs.

Another strategy is to invest in automation and technology to reduce the workload of laboratory professionals. Automated systems can perform routine tasks and allow laboratory professionals to focus on more complex tasks, improving efficiency and reducing the risk of errors. This can also make the field more appealing to younger professionals who are interested in technology and innovation.

Labs should also consider partnering with recruiting and staffing firms, like Lighthouse Lab Services, to fill temporary or permanent positions. These agencies can provide qualified professionals who can work on a short-term or long-term basis, allowing labs to maintain continuity of care while they search for permanent staff.


Looking ahead

The staffing shortage facing labs is a major concern for healthcare systems across the globe. The aging workforce, lack of training programs, and high demand for laboratory services are all contributing factors to this crisis. However, with increased funding for training programs, incentives for laboratory professionals, and investment in automation, labs can address this crisis and ensure that patients receive the timely and accurate testing they need for optimal care.

If your lab needs assistance with staffing, Lighthouse can assist in locating temporary or permanent candidates to ensure your operations continue to run smoothly. Contact us today for a free consultation.


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