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Clinical Labs Turn to Automation to Solve Personnel Shortages

Clinical Labs Turn to Automation to Solve Personnel Shortages

Automating workflows allows labs to do more with less

Jun 11, 2020
Carola Schmidt

Clinical laboratory science (CLS) uncovers and provides information from analyses that assist physicians in patient diagnosis and treatment, along with disease monitoring or prevention. The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor projects that the employment of medical laboratory technicians and scientists will increase by 14 percent through the year 2026. Despite a promising career outlook, however, employment in the CLS field is currently in decline. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of active pathologists in the US decreased by approximately 17.5 percent.

The causes of workforce shortage include: (1) the retirement of a large percentage of employees, (2) an increase in demand for laboratory services, and (3) a shrinking number of university graduates with a laboratory educational background.

Aging Workforce

Even though clinical laboratory professionals who delayed their retirement due to economic uncertainties are now retiring, the workforce as a whole is still agingA 2017 study indicated that the average age of the scientific workforce increased from 45.1 to 48.6 years old between 1993 and 2010. The proportion of scientific workers aged 55 and older was also much larger than the general employed population. This trend is concerning given that the demand for laboratory services is only increasing.

Higher Demand Versus Fewer Professionals

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2018 and 2028, medical laboratory careers will increase by 11 percent compared to a five percent average increase in other careers. The demand for diagnosis of medical conditions and genetic diseases is expected to increase even more drastically.

However, academic institutions are not graduating enough students to fill this void. While there were 18,000 clinical laboratory science vacancies in 2018, only 5,000 students graduated from accredited CLS programs. Since 1988, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) has conducted its vacancy survey to profile the workforce shortage within laboratories in the US. The 2016-2017 ASCP vacancy survey reported the highest overall vacancy in the Northeast region (9.44 percent), with the lowest rate in the South-Central Atlantic (6.31 percent).

More Analysis Needed

Even with the falling number of lab staff, the number of tests to perform is increasing dramatically due to the development of new technologies, the expanding number of available clinical laboratory tests, the growing and aging population, and disease screening for disease-state management. For example, nearly 13 million COVID-19 tests (diagnostic and antibody assays combined) had been conducted across the US as of May 22, which, although daunting, only accounts for testing of less than 4 percent of the country’s populationThere are thousands of laboratory tests other than COVID-19, making the demand even more massive. To manage this dramatic increase in demand, laboratories need to focus on their efficiency, which places further pressure on laboratories that are already seeking ways to juggle more with less. Luckily, automation offers a method to reconcile the dilemma and deliver high-quality results.

Handling More with Less

All of these challenges are leading laboratories to automate and miniaturize their workflows, which, in turn, alleviates the pressure of staffing. Manual laboratory procedures are inevitably arduous, highly repetitive, and prone to errors. Automation of repetitive manual tasks liberates laboratory professionals from mundane tasks, allowing them to concentrate on the analytical side of their work. As a result, trained employees can spend their time on more valuable tasks. This benefits laboratory staff by increasing the creativity of their work, which, ultimately improves employee retention and balances the shrinking workforce.

Furthermore, manual testing can be sensitive to person-to-person and laboratory-to-laboratory variation, which leads to potentially low consistency and credibility. Automation standardizes the procedures and enhances key performance indicators. 

The focus of global regulatory agencies has shifted to data traceability. Compared with time-consuming manual work, laboratory automation delivers robust traceable solutions, assuring data accuracy with minimal user interference.