Medical lab profession faces serious shortage

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
April 8, 2002
Billy Howell, president of the Mississippi Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, talked about a shortage of workers in the medical lab profession during a recent meeting with The Meridian Star editorial board.
Howell, a medical technologist and clinical laboratory scientist with Riley Hospital, also talked about how the week of April 14 will be recognized nationally as National lab Week.
Joining Howell at The Meridian Star were Clayton Cody, lab manager of Rush Foundation Hospital; Zula Kimble medical technologist at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center; and Gerald Kidd, operations manager of Dynacare Laboratories of Mississippi.
The Meridian Star: How bad is the shortage of lab technicians nationally and how does the shortage compare here in Meridian?
Howell: The shortage is important. Nursing gets a lot of attention for their shortage because they have direct contact with patients, but the numbers show that lab has the greater shortage right now. The nursing shortage is 6 percent. The average laboratory personnel shortage is at 9 percent right now.
Basically they are needing about 9,000 graduates a year to fill the new jobs and we're only graduating about 4,500 students annually.
Meridian is in better shape than a lot of places. The rural areas are really hurting and the bigger cities. In Jackson, salaries have gotten so competitive they are having to update every four-to-six months.
The Meridian Star: Is the problem limited to hospitals?
Kidd: The shortage is profession-wide. We're having to find creative ways of filling the gaps for those shortages. One of the problems is that over the last few years there have been job opportunities in other professions that are siphoning off the better qualified students. And students are choosing to go into more lucrative professions rather than clinical laboratory science.
The Meridian Star: What would some of those professions be?
Kidd: Computer science (and) nursing, which has more opportunities beyond the standard staff nurse. There's specialty fields that nurses can branch off into. A med-tech is pretty much locked into not having the professional growth opportunities that some of the other health care professions have.
Plus, with private labs, they can set their hours, where in a hospital setting and our reference lab setting we're having to cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Howell: That's another downside to some people, the hours and the fact that you may have to work every other weekend.
The average age of a laboratorian is 47-years-old. That's why we need to get people in the programs. Right now there's legislation in conference for loan forgiveness programs for people who go into Allied Health programs and lab programs. We need to get the word out to try to recruit students into the programs.
Kidd: Another factor individuals look at when they are choosing what they want to major in in college is the academic requirements for the field. It's just as strenuous as for a person wanting to enter medical school. In fact it's the same curriculum as premed.
The Meridian Star: What does this mean to the patients?
Kimble: We consider ourselves professionals, so we are not going to let the patient suffer. Technology is such that analyzers make it easier to do more with fewer people, but it still doesn't alleviate that stress that you feel because you have very little control and a lot of responsibility.
We're lucky here in Meridian to have three top-notch medical facilities. There are lots of people here who are proud to be here. I think the biggest contribution we have to the profession is pride. We'll fight you tooth and toenail, not to be called lab girl or lab boy, but to be a medical technologist or a medical laboratory technician or clinical laboratory scientist.
The Meridian Star: What role does the lab play?
Cody: The key thing with automation nowadays, people say All they do is put a sample in there and push a button,' the machine actually runs the test. But now that you have information, how do you know that information is valid? There's still so many variables, depending on the quality of the sample you've got, as to whether the information that's been produced by that instrument is valid or not. Who determines that? We do. You still have to have that background and education to determine if this is a valid result that you are giving the doctor or is it just a bogus number. That's what's so critical in the laboratory.
Howell: Up to 70 percent of medical diagnoses are made based on the lab results.
The Meridian Star: What are the most rewarding aspects of the job?
Kimble: To go to work, do your job and come out knowing you have positively impacted somebody's life.
Cody: Our laboratory is on the third floor, right outside of the nursery area, so any time you walk out of the lab it kind of smacks you right in the face, because there you see new life beginning.
Before that time, the mom has been to the physician, has received prenatal care, has had all the proper testing done, all the types of screens that would be done to make sure that the baby's not having any type of exposure, any type of diseases or any type of infections. And after the baby is born, there are blood tests that are collected to make sure there are no metabolic disorders. It brings you into focus as to what we're here for and what it's all about.
Howell: When I go home in the afternoon I know I made a difference in the treatment or outcome of a patient in a good way, especially when we get to go out and have direct contact with the patients.