Lab staffing shortages have been a problem for years and have reached a critical point. There is an estimated nationwide shortage of 20,000 to 25,000 laboratory technologists, and some parts of the US have vacancy rates as high as 25%. This is happening because the number of training programs is declining, salaries for lab professionals are relatively low in light of the educational requirements and costs, and high workloads and stress are increasing turnover rates.
At the same time, clinicians and patients still expect quick turnaround on lab tests. Delays in test results account for 80% of complaints made to labs.
There are a variety of steps the industry as a whole can take to address these issues, including working to attract more students to the profession, increasing the number of training programs and certifications, and standardizing licensure requirements across states.
Individual labs can also take steps to attract and retain employees. For example, they can work with HR to evaluate average salaries in their area, making sure to offer competitive pay and benefits packages, continuing education, mentorship programs and attractive career paths.
Within the lab, workflow improvements using Lean and Six Sigma methodologies can help optimize use of space and ensure an ergonomic, workflow-focused design. It’s also important to have open, two-way communication and to recognize employees for good work. To prevent burnout, roles and expectations should be clearly defined, and labs should create daily workflows that include regular breaks for employees.
Finally, automation can eliminate manual processes, making the workload more manageable for staff.
Increasing automation in the lab
Labs that want to begin increasing use of automation can start by upgrading the laboratory information system. A comprehensive LIS uses rules to replace manual processes while improving interoperability with instruments and EHRs.
Process times can be reduced by even small shifts to automation, like decapping systems or automated cleaning and reprocessing of equipment that allows staff to spend less time on repetitive tasks. For labs that want to take an even bigger step, new platforms and equipment can handle everything from labeling, sample sorting, centrifugation and decapping to automatic analysis, result entry, report verification and delivery. AI-driven automation can help optimize workflow, testing sequences, result interpretation and result augmentation.
The more automation solutions a lab employs, the less time and effort staff have to spend on manual and repetitive tasks. This means labs should see:
- Decreased turnaround time and increased productivity
- Increased availability of the highest-certified staff for more complex tasks
- Reduced manual errors
- Increased flexibility and scalability
- Reduced safety and biohazard risks due to reduced sample handling by staff.
Labs that integrate automation and take other steps to support their workforce will see a variety of benefits and will be able to provide the best results for their organizations and the patients they serve.