Phyllis Ingham, EdD, MLS(ASCP)CM, AHI(AMT), ASCLS Virtual Learning Steering Committee Chair, ASCLS-Georgia President
“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”
– Charles R. Swindoll
What we choose to do with the great opportunities and impossible situations gives us our Golden Opportunity.
Way before COVID, headlines about growing concerns of allied healthcare shortages and the impact on patient care continued to be the first topic of conversation as we gathered together to plan for the future of the medical laboratory profession. We as a profession, recognize the need of being efficient, strategic, and visionary so we must not miss this “Golden Opportunity” to share our profession’s important role in patient care, treatment, and diagnosis, as an integral part of the healthcare team. From academia to clinical practice, we are a necessary component in the healthcare delivery process for patient safety and positive patient outcomes.
Great Opportunity/Impossible Situation #1: Lab Staffing Shortages
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a nationwide need for a 13 percent average increase in medical laboratory technologists and technicians between 2016 and 2026. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Human Resources and Service Administration (HRSA), projects a substantial increase in demand/growth for medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians between 2012 and 2025 of 22 percent. In 2018, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Vacancy Survey reported an average vacancy rate of 8.6 percent in U.S. medical laboratories. Paired with the vacancy rate, there is a projected 13 percent increase in the need for medical laboratorians between 2016 and 2026 (a total of 42,700 vacancies).
Numerous articles can be found that make suggestions as to what “causes” laboratory staffing shortages.
- Career awareness. Who are we and why are we not able to get the word out?
- Decrease in educational training programs. Recruitment continues to become more and more difficult, and retention and completion of our students is always on our minds.
- Retention of qualified medical laboratorians in the workforce. Why do people leave the profession?
- Retirements due to the “Silver Tsunami.”
And that’s just a few of the most probable causes of current shortages.
Since we seem to know some of the predetermined causes, then how do we begin to address the undermining factors to solve the problem? Of course, the problems highlighted are multidimensional involving clinical laboratories and educational institutions, so the answers are multidimensional and will require a team/collaborative approach with participation and ideas from every stakeholder in the laboratory community.
Let’s begin strategizing by first taking a look at the role of the educator. I was reminded once again, just a short time ago, the important role we educators have in helping our students find their purpose, as I was teaching a freshman seminar course. For one of the first activities, I asked the students to tell me, “Why did you choose to go to college?”
A myriad of answers quickly followed suit. Some students said, “I chose college because I want a career.” Others said, “I chose college because I need a great paying job.” And some students even said, “I chose college because my parents made me.” But I had one student who shared with the class a saying his dad had told him his entire life. Daniel’s dad said, “You will never have to work a day in your life if you chose to do something you love; because when you do what you love, it never ever feels like work.”
Wow! That truly reflects the real meaning of purpose. The love of science, love of the laboratory, love of serving on the healthcare team … this is what we as educators must exude each and every day we enter the classroom setting. Passion with a purpose is contagious, and students are eager to find their passion and purpose in life. The positive attitude begins with us.
My challenge to all MLS and MLT educators is to search your soul and make sure you are providing the positive sentiment for future laboratorians to grab hold and endure. How’s your attitude projection rating? This is a time for reflection by all. “Life is only understood backwards, but then we must move forward to change, grow, and live.”
Recruit, Recruit, Recruit
Our MLS and MLT Programs must make recruiting a top priority. With the new COVID landscape we find ourselves within, we must be even more resourceful and creative when it comes to recruiting activities. Consider the following:
- Hold virtual program info sessions
- Produce video tours of your labs and videos of your team explaining why they chose to become a laboratory professional
- Create your own podcast (Wednesdays with the Lab Wizard)
- Hold mini science discussions/science cafés
- Partner with your clinical affiliates to do virtual lab department tours
- Add links for these videos to your institution webpage and the institution recruiter website
- Utilize social media to advertise your program
- Showcase your students—they are your best recruiters; set up activities (virtual) allowing your students to do the talking (Top 10 Reasons to Become a Laboratory Scientist)
- Become the best professional salesperson ever! If “We believe it,” others will “See it.”
Great Opportunity/Impossible Situation #2: Retaining Laboratory Professionals
One of the big challenges in the clinical laboratory profession is retaining qualified staffing levels. Some recent studies have indicated a majority of individuals who enter the medical laboratory science profession may not see the profession as their final career choice, but rather a stepping-stone to another career field in healthcare. Many also have the perception that the profession lacks a career ladder for advancement or increase in salary, which may also be a detriment to the retention of medical laboratory professionals.
Medical Laboratory’s Role
The medical laboratory environment is not immune to issues with burned-out, stressed-out, tired-out, and worn-out staff who feel they are over-worked, under-appreciated, and underpaid. So, the question is, how can hospitals first remedy their “staff” discontent?
It is not possible to attract new staff and employees when your current staff need emotional and physical healing. Why do we have so many employees that desire to quit and move on to other professions?
Creating Healthy Work Environments
Laboratory management must take a step back and really look at what is happening in the daily processes of laboratory life. What is the mindset of your staff? What do you do well and what needs to be improved upon? How are your employee connections? Is your laboratory culture safe, mindful, and positive, or stressed and deflated? What strategies must be employed to make positive culture shifts in the laboratory?
A recent study looking at employee satisfaction indicated most individuals desire these three basic components for workplace happiness and longevity.
- Feeling settled in, being socially connected, and having a sense of belonging.
- Working in a friendly, supportive, and inclusive workplace.
- Having opportunities to build skills and access career pathways.
Can the laboratory management team develop these basic components to increase employee satisfaction? Maybe try some team building techniques, as we all know that alone we can do so little but together we can do so much!
Creative Options for Building Connections
- Mindful Mondays/Motivational Mondays: Every laboratory employee writes handwritten motivational notes or motivational quotes to be shared every Monday to get the week started off with a positive mindset.
- Luncheon Tuesdays: Even while socially distancing there are so many ways to plan small lunches: prepare brown bag treats, handheld Taco Tuesdays in individual bags, grab-n-go delights, etc.
- Wednesday Speaker Series: Offer tech tip for the week, friend tip of the week, mom tip of the week, spouse tip of the week, etc., for individual coping strategies on and off the job.
- Thursday Thrive: Simple trivia, or just breathe as you made it through another week.
The point is we all need to have small celebrations throughout the week to lift spirits and morale in the laboratory workplace.
Laboratory Professional Career Growth and Development
Ambitious laboratory professionals, of course, have the desire to advance in the career field but in many instances just have no idea where to begin. Medical laboratories can provide recruitment and retention activities with training and outreach held throughout the year, thus nurturing collaboration with laboratory partners, and providing current staff members with continuing development opportunities to grow individually and as a laboratory team.
Active involvement and participation in organizations such as ASCLS constituent societies allows many opportunities for individual growth, colleague networking, career advancement, and developing professional connections. Get involved in the profession outside the “work walls” and learn how you can make a difference in your state.
Many opportunities for growth exist “beyond the bench”: laboratory management, healthcare management, IT, point of care testing, DCLS, public health, technical consulting, educator, career coach, marketing, forensics, molecular testing, quality data specialist, and so many more.
The looming question remains: How can we shape public perceptions of laboratory professionals and their contributions to the healthcare system? The answer is simple: It begins with YOU!
“Yes, it is the day for our Golden Opportunity! It is our chance to succeed and a chance that should not be missed!”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational outlook handbook; medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians. Modified April 2019. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm Accessed November 21, 2020.
Crawford, JM, Shotorbani, K, Sharma, G, et al. Improving American healthcare through “Clinical Lab 2.0”: A Project Santa Fe report. Acad Pathol. 2017; 4:1–8. doi:10.1177/2374289517701067
HRSA National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, Health Workforce Projections: Health Technologist and Technician Occupations https://bhw.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/bureau-health-workforce/data-research/health-technologist-technicians-april-2015.pdf Accessed November 21, 2020.
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(16), 5815; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17165815
Serakos, M, Wolfe, B. The ACA: impacts on health, access, and employment. Forum Health Econ Policy. 2016;19(2):201–259. doi:10.1515/fhep-2015-0027
Phyllis Ingham is Clinical Laboratory Technology Program Director/Chair at West Georgia Technical College in Waco, Georgia.