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Blame lab management for staffing shortage.

The laboratory community's major concern today is the growing undersupply of clinical laboratory professionals across the country.

A recent American Society for Medical Technology issue paper noted severe shortages among all levels of nonphysician laboratory practitioners, due to "low salaries, high stress levels, professional advancement obstacles imposed by competing physicians, and wider career opportunities for women." Another reason is a latent fear of AIDS exposure.

Add to these widely recognized factors the tendency of students to pursue careers in business and the computer field rather than health and service areas, and the future looks even more bleak. Yet little has been written about a major reason laboratorians are leaving the field and so few students are entering it: deficiencies in the competence and leadership style of laboratory management.

Even without empirical evidence , I would not hesitate to say that top performers often leave the laboratory profession because they lack respect for and support from management. This negative attitude and perception carries down to those considering clinical laboratory science as a career. The reputation of the whole laboratory profession is affected.

One of my clinical technology students recently referred to this in a paper about employee motivation. She had not yet completed her hospital education program, but her insight far exceeded that of more experienced professionals. Her paper made these points:

"My experience in a clinical laboratory environment has not proved to be what I expected. I have yet to meet a creative, motivated, and fulfilled medical technologist. The mediocrity of supervisors, lack of communication, indifferent attitudes, and lack of motivation are among the problems rampant in the laboratory."

She underlined these concerns by writing about a technologist who had once planned to use medical technology as a stepping stone toward further career development. He told her it ended up being his tombstone instead, which saddened her because he was one of the most intelligent, knowledgeable, and amiable individuals in the laboratory.

My student is new to the work arena. Her perceptions of the lab are still being formed, and she is sharing them with others. If a beginning technologist can possess this level of intuition, why can't those with years in the field recognize the critical influence of laboratory directors, managers, and supervisors on the profession?

In a recent seven-hospital survey of 5,200 nonphysician employees, from top administrators to maintenance personnel, a New York-based employee benefits consulting firm found that lack of control over work environment, vague or rapidly changing priorities, and slow decison making were most likely to cause employees to leave their jobs. It is interesting to note that these were also some of the causes of high stress levels among health care workers reported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in a 1977 survey. Eleven years later, the problems persist.

Laboratory management has the power to establish a motivational work atmosphere as well as to represent laboratory services and personnel aggressively to medical staff, administration, patients, and the community.

When I hear administrators say that laboratory managers are not good candidates for higher management because of their insularity, narrow focus, and lack of team management orientation, I wonder how their laboratory employees must feel. When I hear a medical director describe an ideal laboratory manager as one who would be a "mother to the girls," I question the laboratory's future under this director. When I see a supervisor totally control the operations of his or her section, I wonder how long the employees will tolerate it.

These problem managers can be found in far too many laboratories. Saddest of all, they don't see themselves as problems.

One national management expert has said that the hierarchical organizational structure is not bearing up well. He sees a need for all organizations to be more creative and to involve employees in the operation, and for managers to focus on purpose, vision, and values. When this happens, performance becomes more important than hierarchical control, and leadership by example becomes the cornerstone of successful organizations.

Changing management styles and direction will traumatize many laboratory employees. It may mean replacing top management personnel, eliminating traditional approaches, and reeducating all personnel. It will not be easy to introduce new systems and approaches where employees have been used to a single way. It will also be difficult to persuade entrenched managers to alter their management styles. But all this must be done if the profession is to survive and we are to retain control of laboratory operations.

All of you in laboratory leadership positions should conduct an anonymous survey of your employees to see how they feel about your management style and approach. You may be surprised (positively or negatively) at the outcome. Whatever the results, follow-up is vital if you want employees to continue to be candid.

Remember, you maintain your leadership position because employees allow you to. Your success and future in the organization depend on them. It is to your benefit to do all you can to make their jobs satisfying and rewarding.

Don't blame that nebulous "they" (also known as hospital administration) for the lab's lack of status, recognition, low salaries, and so on. It is your responsibility to convince "them" of the lab's importance so that future rewards and recognition finally match the lab's contributions.
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Article Details
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Author:Barros, Annamarie
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:column
Date:Aug 1, 1988
Previous Article:Public opinion clues to health care in the '90s.
Next Article:HCFA asks Congress to wait for its 'manageable' lab regs.

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