CEO SUMMARY: Most laboratorians are acutely aware that the nation’s pool of trained medical technicians and medical technologists is shrinking even as growing numbers of baby-boomer lab techs approach retirement. Meanwhile, training programs are feeding inadequate numbers of new med techs into the system. To rectify this situation, lab directors are actively working to bring “new blood” into the profession.
IN RECENT YEARS there’s been plenty of publicity and news stories about the dwindling number of MTs and MLTs available to staff the nation’s clinical laboratories.
Across the United States, there are several metropolitan areas where the supply of med techs is already inadequate to meet existing demand. In these markets, it is common to find vacancy rates in individual hospital labs approaching 15% to 20% for technical positions.
Hospital and health system laboratories experiencing these high levels of “unfillable” positions find themselves inadequately staffed to handle the current volume of specimens flowing into their laboratories. This existing spot shortage of med techs is predicted to become widespread as baby-boomer med techs reach retirement age and opt to cease working.
The shortage of MTs and MLTs across the nation’s laboratories is not unique. Within healthcare, there are recognized shortages across a number of specialties. Last year, the Ameri- can Hospital Association surveyed 715 hospitals. It found vacancy rates of 21% for pharmacists, 18% for radi- ological technologists, 12% for “laboratory technologists” and 11% for nurses. (See TDR, July 2, 2001.)
It is the same story in other countries. Canada, Australia, and nations throughout Europe acknowledge that the supply of med techs is inadequate to fully staff their laboratories. Moreover, each passing year, the demographics of an aging workforce will further acerbate this problem.
Within the United States, concern about the impending crises in staffing the nation’s laboratories with technically-trained individuals has yet to become a high-profile issue with policy makers and government officials. In recent years, a number of the lab industry’s professional associations held high-level summits to discuss this problem, but little tangible action resulted from these gatherings.
Labs Take Initiative
In the absence of any national, high-priority initiative, some laboratorians at the local level are taking matters in their own hands. THE DARK REPORT is aware of several impressive efforts initiated by proactive lab directors to attract and train more med techs in their communities.
“One limiting factor in our ability to recruit more med techs is the availability of training programs in our community,” stated Ran Whitehead, COO of Oregon Medical Laboratories (OML) in Eugene, Oregon. “Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), the state’s medical school, is 100 miles north in Portland, as are most of the community college programs.
“Because our community lacked a local funding program, we opted to use distance training programs for our med tech students. We also obtained grant money to supplement our training budget,” he noted.
OML co-wrote several grant proposals as the first step to obtaining money. “We applied for a federal grant of $1.2 million to fund training for med techs, radiology techs, and RNs,” he noted. “The other grant proposal was to Lane County. We’ve not yet received an answer on the federal grant proposal. We were awarded money under a Lane County Economic Development Grant.”
OML is an independent laboratory company owned by PeaceHealth (a not-for-profit health system sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Peace, based in Bellevue, Washington). It provides inpatient testing for 400-bed Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene and two smaller hospitals in Central Oregon. OML also serves as a regional reference lab for both physicians’ offices and other community hospitals throughout Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. In partnership with the Lane County Workforce Partnership, OML was awarded $127,824.
“This is seed money,” explained Whitehead. “It establishes a distance learning program for licensed medical technicians and medical technologists which is currently unavailable in Lane County. To further economic development, county officials wanted to help train people for careers in healthcare.
“The goal for these grant awards was to target industries which could generate full-time jobs in Lane County which pay more than the county’s average wage of $28,969,” he noted. “Our grant proposal was a perfect match for the county’s economic development goals.”
OML’s Two-Year Investment
OML will invest $235,800 over two years as its share of the training program. “This approximates what we currently pay for temporary med techs and our costs to recruit people from out of state to fill technical positions in the lab,” said Whitehead.
“Money from these two sources will fund a two-year distance learning program,” he continued. “It allows our med tech candidates to continue working almost full-time and to stay in Eugene. They will be working to pass the ASCP registry exam.
“We are using the Medical College of Georgia’s (MCG) distance learning program. MCG trained four students in a pilot project last year. That went well and encouraged us to expand it this year.
“OML is making a major commitment to med tech training,” declared Whitehead. “We have a tuition reimbursement policy that pays up to $1,000 per year in a qualifying program. We provide managers to help students with their internship.
“Within our company, we want both two-year and four-year degreed personnel to move to higher levels of training and proficiency.”
“Within our company, we want both two-year and four-year degreed personnel to move to higher levels of training and proficiency. We also want to attract and hire graduates from the University of Oregon (UO) with BS degrees, but no MT or MLT certification,” stated Whitehead. “Many UO graduates want to remain in Eugene, but jobs are not abundant. OML is a great career option for these individuals.
“OML currently doesn’t have a high number of unfilled technical positions. Our lab employs about 400 FTEs. Our 200 technical positions are split almost 50/50 between MTs and MLTs,” commented Whitehead. “We are lucky to average only 2-3 open positions. But we know that, without more technically trained help, unfilled positions will increase as specimen volume increases and retirement begins to thin our existing staff ranks.”
Whitehead also foresees another future problem. “Like most labs, we are selectively using automation and workstation consolidation as tools to move MLTs to ‘higher-value’ duties. But we are concerned about genetic and molecular diagnostics. We both want and need our MTs and MLTs to take their training to a higher level so they can handle the more complex menu of testing which is heading our way. It’s a strategic lever to help us maintain our competitive market position,” he predicted.
THE DARK REPORT observes that OML’s plan for increasing the number of MTs and MLTs in its community can be copied by other laboratories. OML is committing money equal to what it spends on overtime, temporary technical staffing, and out-of-state recruiting to this goal. This financial commitment allowed it to obtain grant money, thus multiplying the value of its own investment.
Lacking a local training program, OML adopted a distance learning model, using the Medical University of Georgia, based in Augusta, Georgia. In so doing, it has stimulated a response from existing training pro- grams within Oregon.
Med Tech Training Programs
“The fact that we obtained funding and began spending those dollars with an out-of-state university did not go unnoticed,” observed Whitehead. “Some Oregon institutions which did not offer distance learning for MTs and MLTs have launched discussions with us. We are optimistic that we may soon have options for in-state distance learning.”
OML’s infant program for med tech training demonstrates several truths common to most laboratories. First, local economic development organizations see MT and MLT jobs as worthwhile investments, making them eligible for development grants.
Second, distance-learning programs, combined with educational support within the lab, can allow labs in areas without formal training programs to begin building a supply of med techs. Third, recruiting local college grads with BS degrees and helping them obtain med tech certification is a viable way to expand the labor supply.