Medical laboratory personnel make up a small but essential portion of the number of workers within the health sector. Diagnostics can help to determine whether a patient is well enough to resume working or whether a patient is having an adverse reaction to medicine. Despite this fact, the field isn't a glamorous one, and few new workers are entering to take up the slack from those that are retiring or moving to other professions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the demand for laboratory workers has risen by 13% over the last year - a significant amount since it represents double that of other fields. This may be indirectly due to how difficult it is for interested persons to find accredited training programs around the country. Lab Testing Matters notes that the amount of available accredited learning paths for potential professionals has dropped by approximately 25% since 1990. These matters point towards a dire situation for laboratories shortly as skilled workers start running low.
The Potential Impact on Patients
While the system itself would suffer, the people that the shortage of lab workers would affect most would be patients. The Journal of Applied Laboratory Medicine notices that, in a study published in 2016, that as many as 98% of all inpatients had at least one laboratory test done on them, and a little more than half of all emergency cases needing at least one lab test. With this kind of traffic coming from emergency and inpatient sectors, a lack of new lab personnel could significantly hamper the timely performance of tests and delivery of results. Indirectly, patient care would suffer as doctors have to wait longer for tests to return, leaving more time for the patient's condition to potentially worsen.
Solutions to the Looming Problem
While there is still a necessity for laboratory staff at its current levels, this may not always be the case. As fewer people engage in the field, the industry will be more incentivized to find ways to automate processes so that tests require fewer steps or people to get done. The journal Laboratory Medicine notes that there are a number of inherent benefits to including automation within laboratory testing including, but not limited to, reduction in errors, improvements in efficiency, lowered occupational safety risks and a potential answer to labor shortage issues. The problems with automation is that while it is a useful addition to a lab, including expensive equipment requires is sometimes out of a department's budget, no matter how much potential gain it could provide to the sector as a whole.
The Undeniable Value of Laboratory Staff
Automation solves one problem, and has been used effectively in other fields, including web development with the work done by Brainbox. But as we've noted, it's a solution that comes with its own issues attached. No matter how good automation is, it will never bring a human face to interpersonal interactions and in many cases, having laboratory staff is necessary to deal with these kinds of situations. Analysis by automated means still needs to be vetted by a trained individual because machines are likely to make mistakes if they're simply being trained to spot the most obvious of problems. Eventually, with time, we may see a more advanced laboratory testing system, but as the journal Nature states, artificial intelligence is still having issues with clinical diagnostics as it is. To date, there is still no replacement for having trained professionals in the lab.
Encouraging New Technicians
A less-noted but just as important method of gaining new employees in the field of laboratory testing comes from publicizing the contribution of these unsung heroes to the public. Many laboratory technicians ended working within the industry because a series of specific events lined up to introduce them into the field. STEM students are the perfect candidates to consider a fulfilling career in diagnostics if they so choose. While it might not single-handedly solve the lack of skilled professionals in the industry, it will go a long way to making diagnostics a potential profession for the right students.