Insights and Advice about the Lab Staffing Crisis

Labs have several paths forward to help address the shortage of MTs, MLSs, MLTs, other lab positions

CEO SUMMARY: For the past decade, it’s been recognized that the supply of skilled laboratory professionals is inadequate to meet the needs of the nation’s clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups. Leadership at American Medical Technologists recommends steps that labs can take to encourage more individuals to opt for a career in the lab profession.

BY NOW, IT’S A WELL-ESTABLISHED FACT that the shortage of medical technologists (MTs), medical laboratory scientists (MLSs), and medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) is acute in most major cities across the nation. The inability to fully staff clinical labs may be the single most pressing issue for lab leaders today. 

Someone with valuable insights on the current state of lab personnel and the training pipeline for incoming MTs, MLSs, and MLTs is Kathy Cilia, CAE, MLS(AMT), MLS(ASCP), Executive Director at American Medical Technologists (AMT) in Rosemont, Ill. 

The widening gap between available laboratory workers and open lab jobs has multiple facets. For example, even before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, burnout among overworked lab staff was a problem in U.S. labs. COVID-19 exacerbated the issue, as lab workers put in long hours with constant pressure to turn tests around. 

The pandemic also created a phenomenon known as the “Great Resignation,” in which workers completely exited the industries they worked in, searching for more rewarding careers and better work/life balance. (See TDR, “Lab Workforce Crisis Takes Top Spot, Says CAP Today,” April 25, 2022.) 

Kathy Cilia, Executive Director at American Medical Technologists
Kathy Cilia, CAE, MLS(AMT), MLS(ASCP)

In an exclusive interview with The Dark Report, Cilia confirmed the current lab staffing crisis. “We often hear from our members how short staffed they are in the lab and how stressed they are.” 

AMT certifies professionals for a dozen roles in healthcare, including MLSs and MLTs. The organization has about 100,000 members, a quarter of which are in the medical laboratory industry. 

Cilia suggested that clinical laboratories look at the following options as they seek to successfully attract, hire, and retain staff while staying ahead of competitors:

  • Establish relationships with high school math and science students who could serve as lab workers in the future.
  • Explore non-traditional education options for would-be lab workers.
  • Change the nomenclature of the MT job title to raise the visibility of the scientific aspect of the work.
  • Audit workflows to allow lab scientists to work at the top of their potential.

High School Relationships

Cilia provided detailed thoughts about each of these areas. She started by suggesting labs should contact students early who have interest in science. This early outreach should be a high priority for clinical lab certification programs and for labs and pathology practices that worry about their future workforce. 

AMT partners with the National Consortium for Health Science Education, which represents teachers and state education agency leaders responsible for middle school, high school, and post-secondary health science learning programs.

“As a member of their Executive Council, we are in contact with high school teachers to let them know that the lab profession is an option,” she explained. “At the high school level, and probably even middle school, you really want to get students interested in looking beyond just a nurse or a physician career.”

Laboratory administrators and pathologists interested in promoting career options to students should look for high schools in their communities that offer “career technical education” programs.

“We’re starting to see more career technical education programs pop up in high schools,” Cilia noted. “Students are leaving high school with professional credentials, like that of a lab assistant or phlebotomy technician, which allow them to start careers or work in the field while they continue their education.”

Non-Traditional Paths 

Cilia has also witnessed a trend in non-traditional education of future lab scientists and workers, which comes at a time when college- or university-based options for lab training are limited. 

“A lot of MT/MLS/MLT training programs are either closing or they’re not attracting the right talent,” she added. “Because of that, we see a trend in which lab employers start to conduct their own training through apprenticeship programs and workforce development programs.”

A good example of this trend is Scripps Health in San Diego, which offers its own 12-month, clinical laboratory scientist training program with free tuition for enrolled applicants.

AMT has also created an apprenticeship eligibility route to certification. “This is a valid option for somebody who is trained through an apprenticeship program. They can complete the program and obtain a professional credential,” Cilia noted.

‘Scientist’ over ‘Technologist’ 

There is movement among laboratory industry groups and certification boards—including the AMT, American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification, American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, and other groups—to change the nomenclature of “medical technologist” to “medical laboratory scientist.”

Cilia suggested that by focusing on the science of the job, more people who have scientific backgrounds may be nudged into the lab profession. She also said there is an outdated connotation to the term MT. “There’s so much more behind an MLS than just running instruments,” she noted. 

“It’s the science behind it and the theory of knowing what to do if a result is not within range,” she added. “You’re discussing diagnoses with physicians, so you really have to know the science behind what you’re running. I think ‘scientist’ is a more appropriate term. It will do the laboratory profession well to have this new terminology introduced.”

In a position paper on the topic, the ASCP dissuaded further use of the terms “med tech” or “bench tech.” “These phrases denote outdated terminology, as ‘medical technology’ has come to commonly mean any use of technology in medicine,” the paper stated.

Workflows and Duties

Cilia suggested that, while COVID-19 raised the profile of laboratory workers to the general public, the workload also created staffing shortages leading to longer shifts, a greater emphasis on efficiency, and a heavier workload. Burnout was a natural result from this combination of factors.

Moving forward, if labs want to retain existing MTs, MLSs, and MLTs, there must be greater efforts to make scheduling more reasonable.

“Employers will need to figure out how to creatively schedule their laboratory staff so that they can have that balance and have time off,” she observed. “The goal is to avoid them working long hours and without breaks.”

She has also heard of labs taking the initiative to restructure workflows in a way that frees up time for lab scientists to focus on the important parts of their jobs while jettisoning more routine tasks.

“Laboratories are starting to consider different staffing models,” she said. “They are rearranging their work so that the bulk of the duties may be done by someone who’s an MLT or even a lab assistant, thus leaving the higher-level work to the medical lab scientist.”

Doing so may improve morale and retention among MLSs by letting them work to the top of their scope of practice.

As The Dark Report recently noted, one way to achieve a better distribution of work tasks versus skills is for labs to use Lean Six Sigma to eliminate waste and inefficiencies in workflows. (See TDR, “Lean is Smart Approach to Major Lab Cost Savings,” Sept. 19, 2022.)

Employee Retention

Using Lean Six Sigma can improve employee retention through quality measures that streamline work processes at a time when clinical laboratory managers are under extreme pressure to cut costs, even as they deal with understaffing.

Further, as recommended by Cilia, forward-thinking clinical laboratory leaders must reach into younger populations to fill their future workforce needs, while also taking steps to bring added value to their current workers’ careers. 

Failure to do so has implications beyond staff levels, as a lab’s ability to meet testing demands and generate new revenue hinges upon having enough staff to accomplish these business objectives.

Contact Kathy Cilia at kcilia@americanmedtech.org.

In-House Locum Tenens Offer Innovative Approach 

ONE PROGRESSIVE APPROACH to staffing shortages Kathy Cilia, CAE, MLS(AMT), MLS(ASCP) heard about was a health system that created its own internal locum tenens team. 

The team travels among the various labs in the system, focusing on locations that have staffing shortages on any given week or even day, said Cilia, Executive Director at American Medical Technologists.

“The health system identified medical lab scientists who might want to travel to different hospitals, and they pay the scientists a little bit more to be able to plug them in where the system needs them staffing wise,” she added. 

“That’s an innovative solution within their own system. It’s not bringing contractors from out of the system, which can be costly.”

 

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