For the Critical Values series, “3 Questions With,” Dr. Susan Harrington, Chair of the ASCP Workforce Steering Committee, shares her thoughts on three questions (and a bonus!) on issues facing the laboratory, changes she’d like to see in educational programs, and more.
The issues confronting the workforce that have led to the shortages we are seeing today are complex and deep-seated within the medical laboratory profession. Local laboratories are finding immediate solutions to effectively deal with acute staffing shortages. They are working hard to find incentives to retain their staff, recruit new staff, and otherwise manage workloads. However, these solutions won’t impact the pipeline of new laboratory professionals. Real success will be gained by tackling the deeper issues such as improving the visibility of the laboratory professions so that young people know it as a career option and not a job that they fall into after they have already obtained a related science degree.
Part and parcel to this is improving the way students learn about the clinical laboratory as a career option by being more proactive with messaging. Essential will be increasing the number of educational programs so that the number of laboratory professionals entering the profession exceeds the number leaving. There is also much to be done to promote continuous engagement of laboratory professionals to sustain them in the workforce and provide opportunities for career progression. The Workforce Steering Committee is still in its earliest stages of planning. My goal is to focus on a few initiatives to address these issues and develop them in a way that will allow them to be maintained over the long term. We will need a sustained engagement of volunteers and professional societies to support the effort.
This is a tough question because the issues are interrelated. Although I think the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly raised awareness of the clinical laboratory and the vital role it plays in the healthcare system, I do not think the general public understands who we are and how we have prepared for our roles. In a word, visibility may be the core issue. One approach to getting the word out is for those within the profession to seek opportunities to speak to local students and guidance counselors about the profession. I am sure there are other solutions and I encourage my laboratory colleagues to go for it!
Within the clinical laboratory, I believe right now the biggest issue is the impact that the shortage has on the individual. Our laboratory professionals are working too many hours and giving up too much of their personal time. They are burned out. Given the lack of laboratory professionals coming out of educational programs, some may feel there is no relief in sight. They may be right. This is so challenging because resources are slim. Whatever laboratory leaders can do to provide flexibility and appreciation in the workplace will go a long way. When there are few to no extra hours in the day it is hard to find opportunities to engage employees in developmental work or continuous improvement projects, but having the opportunity to make a difference in the workplace can be so meaningful to the personal satisfaction of the individual lab professional. There is no replacement for feeling personally needed and relevant.
My bachelor’s degree is in Medical Technology and I worked in the microbiology laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Hospital for 15 years before I went back to school for a PhD. During those years I had the opportunity to do projects, take posters to meetings, and contribute to publications. I got an MPH degree and was sent for training on bacterial strain typing so that we could start a molecular epidemiology section in the laboratory. There was always something new and interesting to do. Maybe I am a late bloomer, but as I see it the lab’s medical directors and supervisors invested in me, and it made all the difference in my career and achievements. I would like to see others gain from similar mentoring, but I wonder if the current need for laboratories to operate at extremely high efficiency reduces opportunities. I hope not.
In 10 years’ time I would love to see the number of educational programs expanded in high schools, technical schools or community colleges to provide more opportunities for directed entry into the profession at the phlebotomist, medical laboratory assistant (MLA) and histotechnician levels. For the medical laboratory scientist (MLS), I hope to see expansion of opportunities to learn more about molecular diagnostics, big data analysis and artificial intelligence or other science of which I can’t yet conceive. It will be interesting to see how traditional MLS education will evolve to reflect the workplace, as the workplace is evolving as well. What I would like to see stay the same or improve is an uncompromising adherence to educational standards that reflect current practice. It is essential for entry level laboratory professionals to have the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to support their work in the laboratory. I think this is something for which professional societies can advocate.