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The Impending Crisis in the Clinical Laboratory Workforce

Imagine going to your doctor for a routine checkup and the phlebotomist takes a few blood samples for lab work. Three days later, the doctor's office calls and asks you to come back because they need to get another sample for testing. Wondering if something is terribly wrong, you ask "why?" since you already gave a blood sample just a few days ago. The person on the phone assures you that nothing is wrong. Imagine, though, that the laboratory that received your blood sample did not have enough clinical laboratory scientists to test your sample upon arrival and now they are out of stability (too old to test).

Does this sound unbelievable? This scenario may be a little melodramatic but across the United States in hospitals, clinics, commercial laboratories, and doctors' offices, clinical laboratories are experiencing a severe shortage of personnel often referred to as clinical laboratory scientists, medical technologists, or medical laboratory scientists. In fact, more than 70% of programs teaching this critical profession have closed. From 1975 to 2005, nearly 500 accredited medical technology programs were closed across the country, and the number of graduates fell from 6,121 to 2,070 during the same period. In fact, there is an impending crisis in the clinical laboratory science workforce. Seven years ago a study by the American Society of Clinical Pathology indicated 72% of the laboratory workforce was 40 years of age or older, with the majority close to retirement. Nearly one-half (43%) of all clinical laboratories nationwide struggle to hire laboratory personnel. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2014, an additional 81,000 technologists and technicians will be needed to replace retirees and 68,000 to fill new positions.

We have some possible causes and suggestions for averting or reversing the situation. Young students at and below the college level are not interested in the field of clinical laboratory medicine. This is due to the lack of knowledge of what the profession is all about. One of the major reasons for declining enrollment is that we in the profession are "faceless." The average "person on the street" does not know we exist and therefore our youth know nothing of the profession of laboratory medicine. Laboratory professionals work behind the scenes with little to no patient contact.

The profession is invisible to the general public. If you were to ask the average man on the street, "Who performed the lab work on the specimens that were taken the last time you visited your doctor?" The most common answer might be the nurse or the phlebotomist or the doctor.

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