In the last four months, an increasing number of academic institutions have closed clinical laboratory sciences programs as a result of state budget cuts and the economic downturn.
If the trend grows, the impact to hospitals and communities would be significant, said Cheryl Caskey, president of the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
"This could literally be the tip of the iceberg," Caskey said. "Labs are already straining to meet demands."
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The current vacancy rate in the clinical laboratory sciences field is 13 percent, said Dianne Cearlock, CEO of NAACLS. In the next five years, 13 percent of the workforce is expected to retire, with 25 percent of the workforce retiring over the next 10 years.
The situation is compounded by the facts that only two new clinical lab professionals enter the field for every seven who retire, and the average age of the laboratory professional is over 50, Cearlock said.
NAACLS has received notification that the University of South Alabama and Western Carolina University have decided to close their four-year programs for clinical laboratory scientists/medical technologists, and Arizona State University is considering closing its four-year program, Cearlock said.
ASU is the only four-year program left in the state of Arizona, according to Caskey. This is bad news for the profession, as data from a Mississippi laboratory program survey revealed that 80 to 90 percent of laboratory technologists who train in a state end up working in that state.
If ASU eliminates its program, Arizona laboratories could have a difficult time recruiting laboratory technologists, Caskey speculated.
States and communities have responded to the national shortage of laboratory professionals by increasing the number of two-year programs for clinical and medical laboratory technicians, Cearlock said. But those efforts may not be enough.
Caskey noted that the increase in program closures means laboratories will be forced to cut services, hire agency people, which is "exceedingly more expensive," or have current staff work overtime. With increased overtime, "you get concerned about fatigue levels and the potential increase in error rate," she said.
The laboratorian shortage problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is little understanding and appreciation for how labs fit into the healthcare ecosystem, especially in the hospital environment, said Caskey.
"Laboratories supply 70 percent of the data that is used for clinical decision support," Caskey said. The shortage of technologists translates into delays in diagnoses and treatment, which increases the bottom line for hospitals and the cost to patients because of longer lengths of stay.
The laboratory profession also suffers from being hidden "within the four walls of the lab" and having little direct patient contact, Caskey said. Outside the clinical laboratory community, few realize the level of education and training required for the profession.
For its part, NAACLS sends out advocacy letters to decision makers at educational institutions when it is notified of programs that are being considered for closure. The organization is updating its toolkit for program survival, but ultimately, Cearlock said, "programs will have to sell themselves to university and hospital administrators and the community" and demonstrate their value.
In March, four organizations - the American Society for Clinical Pathology, American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, American Medical Technologists and the Clinical Laboratory Management Association - congregated in Washington, D.C., to advocate for increased funding for clinical laboratory programs.
While it's an uphill battle, educating the healthcare industry of the consequences is critical.
"The impact that our profession has on other healthcare professions to effectively do their jobs is significant," Caskey said. If the crisis in the clinical laboratory industry continues, "it's going to effect more people than just us," she said.