Whe laboratory-workforce shortage is a recurring topic within the in vitro diagnostics industry, and one that needs to be addressed sooner than later. Frequently published statistics from professional laboratory organizations reveal the serious nature of the shortage. As the aging workforce retires in large numbers, educational programs cannot keep pace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a need for 14,000 new lab professionals annually, with educational programs producing less than 5,000 each year.1 For every seven lab professionals exiting the profession due to retirement, only two are being replaced.2
This trend, underway for several years, threatens the ability to appropriately staff laboratories across the country. With unemployment rates currently near double-digits across the nation,1 one would think that such a critical role in the healthcare profession would be in high demand. In fact, in this case, demand actually exceeds supply — with more than 40,000 current lab vacancies in the U.S.1
Studies indicate that 70% of all medical decisions are based on laboratory data and information that medical laboratory professionals provide.3 Without this information, physicians cannot make accurate diagnoses or determine appropriate treatments. A clinician’s job is nearly impossible without the diagnostic information provided by the unsung heroes of laboratory science. This lack of public recognition may be one reason fewer young people are pursuing opportunities in this field. Additionally, if students happen to learn about opportunities that exist in the laboratory profession, do they receive enough information to spark their interest? For those interested in science, healthcare, or even engineering, laboratory science could be the perfect occupational match. We just need to reach out to them.
In 2006, Abbott Laboratories developed and sponsored the Labs are Vital (LRV) program to address this issue. The Labs are Vital mission 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 of professional organizations supporting the lab industry such as ASCP, ASCLS, AACC, CLMA, CCCLW, and APHL to name a few. To address the industry’s workforce needs, at this year’s AACC/ASCLS Expo in Anaheim, CA, LRV showcased two of its most critical initiatives: Student Outreach and National Advocacy programs.
The Student Outreach program targets sophomores and juniors at the high school level interested in science-related fields. LRV supporters work with local healthcare facilities to coordinate venues for students and lab professionals to interact. As a result of this exchange, students actively participate in different experiments and various simulations conducted by their lab-science mentors. The hope is that the time spent together with lab professionals will resonate with the students and result in their heightened interest in lab science as a possible career option.
Comprised of laboratory professionals, the National Advocacy program complements the Student Outreach program by having both laboratory medicine educators and scientists speak to various audiences, in addition to students, on behalf of the profession to address the challenges faced by the industry. The LRV program certifies these advocates via online training, which also 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.
Changing the trend of this workforce shortage in laboratory science undoubtedly will continue to take time and effort, but it can be accomplished if we work together. This is a general public issue as well as a lab/healthcare-industry issue, thus we should approach this challenge in a manner used by the nursing profession when it was plagued with similar issues. We now need to bring awareness of this issue to those outside the healthcare industry by requiring a stronger response from lab professionals who can communicate their value to healthcare administrators, regulators, and legislators. Enlisting the support of the healthcare community and the community at large can bring about important awareness of the variety of clinical lab occupations and their value to the public.
Let us all join the effort and apply some dedicated resources to this campaign because, as we help save this profession, we also help save lives. Visit http://www.labsarevital.com to register as a supporter, learn the issues, get involved, and spread the word.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Accessed September 23, 2010. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos096.htm#outlook.
- Sponseller, A. New Training Programs Help Ease Lab Staff Shortages. July 28, 2010. Abbott Laboratories. Accessed September 23, 2010. http://www.abbott.com/global/url/pressRelease/en_US/60.5:5/Press_Release_0885.htm.
- Forsman RW. Why is the laboratory an afterthought for managed care organizations? Clin Chem. 1996;42:813-816.
Kenneth Marques Thornton is director of Brand Marketing for the Diagnostics Division of Abbott Laboratories. His responsibilities also include the Labs Are Vital initiative.