The Impact of Coronavirus Pandemic on Laboratory Workforce: What’s Next?

By Susan Montgomery - January 28, 2022

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Pathology and the medical laboratory profession have been the bedrock of health care throughout the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) is deeply appreciative of our pathology and laboratory professional members who have worked tirelessly to care for the patients they have dedicated themselves to serve. 

“Throughout this pandemic, ASCP members’ unfailing dedication and perseverance to battle on has shown to the world that pathology and laboratory medicine play a crucial role in patient care,” says ASCP President Henry (Harv) M. Rinder, MD, FASCP. 

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has put extreme pressure on healthcare services worldwide and pushed many healthcare workers past their breaking point. Many have left the profession, exhausted, leaving laboratories scrambling to fill vacancies at a time when testing has skyrocketed.  

Raising the visibility of the medical laboratory profession and expanding the pipeline of future pathology and laboratory professionals has always been a high priority for ASCP. This year, the Society is putting an even greater effort on revitalizing the field.  

“ASCP will continue to support our members with all of the tools necessary to maintain and improve on the important work of pathology and the laboratory,” Dr. Rinder says.  “Underlying all of ASCP’s efforts is our focus on improving the delivery of patient care, through improved patient safety, diagnostics, and pathology and laboratory staffing.” 

Enhancing the workforce will be a key discussion topic at the Society’s Leadership Forum in March. The annual forum brings together the ASCP volunteers who serve on all of the councils, commissions, and committees to determine priority issues and to chart a course of action for the year ahead. The formation of a new ASCP workforce steering committee was announced last fall; its members will be introduced during the Leadership Forum.  

“Since the beginning of COVID-19, we have had to rethink strategies we were using when it comes to recruitment, retention, enhancing visibility of the profession, and analysis of employees’ wellbeing in terms of burnout,” says Edna Garcia, MPH, Director of Scientific Engagement at ASCP.  

“We have developed new strategies to address those issues,” Ms. Garcia says. “Most of our workforce recommendations were previously gleaned from ASCP’s Wage and Vacancy Survey responses. This time, with funding from the Siemens Foundation, ASCP partnered with the University of Washington to conduct a detailed analysis in which we were able to conduct focus groups, conduct one-on-one interviews with supervisors and employees in laboratories, and heard their novel ideas about how to address workforce concerns. From there, we were able to create a Blueprint for Action, which has not been released yet.” 

The new workforce steering committee will review the Blueprint for Action and decide how it wants to proceed with those recommendations.  

Meanwhile, ASCP’s Institute for Science, Technology, and Policy has also been collecting data from members on issues related to staffing and burnout during the pandemic. The ASCP 2020 Vacancy Survey included a section of questions that focused on the impact of COVID-19 on laboratory staffing.  

“The plan was to begin a longitudinal analysis. We are about to launch the survey on COVID-19 and its effect on staffing in February. It asks the same questions as in the COVID-19 and staffing survey in 2020 but with additional suggestions from the Commission on Science, Technology, and Policy and the Council of Laboratory Professionals,” Ms. Garcia says.  

The 2020 Vacancy Survey asked respondents how the pandemic had affected their laboratory’s testing volumes, whether their lab had encountered difficulties obtaining COVID-19 test kits, whether their labs conducted SARS-CoV-2 testing or if they sent them to a reference lab or other hospitals. It also asked which staffing positions had been most affected and how institutions that did decrease staff did so, whether by furloughs, closing full-time employment positions or layoffs.  

“Of the responses, we did see a lot of laboratories that furloughed their staff. Many employees were also reassigned to other positions, and some laboratories used flexible shifts,” Ms. Garcia adds. 

What ASCP hopes to learn from a longitudinal study is how the laboratories were ultimately able to pivot during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.   

“They quickly adapted and became one of the champions of the pandemic,” Ms. Garcia says.  “Now, they have managed to handle not just COVID testing but all other tests they were doing before the pandemic. They have handled a workload that is far too intense without having enough staff. We are seeing a lot of novel ideas such as providing hiring flexibilities, schedule and role flexibilities, reaching out to (training) programs more so that graduating students already have a job before they even graduate.”  

In addition to the Vacancy Survey, ASCP deployed a survey in August 2021 to gauge the impact that burnout was having in pathology and laboratory medicine. Some of the preliminary results were presented at the ASCP 2021 Annual Meeting and more will be released in an upcoming research paper. In the meantime, the burnout survey was relaunched in late January 2022 and will be open for responses until February 18 midnight Pacific time. 

All of this data collection will be used to help guide ASCP workforce initiatives going forward. “Our patients are our most precious resource, and our workforce is essential to taking care of those patients,” says Jeff Jacobs, Chief Officer for Science, Technology, and Policy. “The entire healthcare system is in crisis, and our workforce is more important than ever. We have to nurture our workforce and give them the tools they need to get the job done in order to take care of our patients.”  


Susan Montgomery

ASCP communications writer