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Do automated instruments reduce job satisfaction?

Manufacturers claim they are helping laboratories cope with the personnel shortage by producing a new generation of highly automated analytical instruments that reduce hands-on involvement. By minimizing the medical technologist's analytical role, these instruments reduce the demand for highly skilled technologists. This allows workers with less skill, such as medical laboratory technicians, to operate the equipment.'

Hiring technicians to run analyzers traditionally operated by technologiSts would theoretically help alleviate the MT staffing crunch. Many vendors, pursuing this idea, boast of their instruments' streamlined operation, easy-to-follow software menus, and less exhaustive training requirements. Many laboratory managers who have heard these arguments and bought automated instruments hope they will enhance their MTs' job satisfaction. This in turn is expected to boost retention and provide their laboratories with another tool for counteracting the personnel shortage.

Following this strategy, however, carries a risk. Modem management analysts concur that simplifying work leads to job dissatisfaction. 2 They have noted that when jobs become highly specialized, employees tend to find their tasks monotonous and unsatisfying. Eventually, efficiency and productivity suffer.

One study addressed this phenomenon in the lab 20 years ago by assessing the goal priorities of medical technologists at I I clinical laboratories. 3 The researchers concluded that challenging work was an important source of job satisfaction for MTs. More recently, an investigator polled graduates of a medical technology program to determine their feelings about their work.4 After evaluating the relationship between their job satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, he found that those expressing a greater sense of achievement had also ranked such characteristics as "requires thinking" and entails variety" as being of great importance.

One management expert urges laboratory supervisors to find ways to make lab work more interesting, challenging, and creative. He believes that employees should be encouraged to think about ways to make their own jobs more appealing.

I Another observer states that many medical technologists become dissatisfied when they feel their expertise is being squandered.' o Initiating a study. In light of these findings, we wished to determine the impact of highly automated analyzers on job satisfaction. We wondered whether the very analyzers touted as a solution to the labor shortage might hinder more than help, especially when operated by highly skilled laboratorians.

We also wanted to know whether technicians were being utilized to run these instruments, thereby enabling lab managers to conserve the expertise of their medical technologists for more demanding work. In an effort to answer these questions, we developed a questionnaire for chemistry supervisors.

Methodology. Using the 1988 American Hospital Association Guide, we selected 250 hospitals at random and mailed a copy of the questionnaire and a detailed cover letter to the chemistry supervisor of each. We promised strict confidentiality and told prospective respondents that we would share our results with them.

Respondents were asked for the average number of routine specimens and Stats processed per day. They were requested to identify the primary analyzer used to process routine lab work and the one for Stat requests. We asked them to rate the skill level required to operate each instrument from 0 (minimal skill) to 5 (maximum skill). Respondents were instructed to specify the highest level of education of each instrument's primary operator and to rate that operator's level of satisfaction from 0 (none) to 5 (high).

Results. Of the 250 chemistry supervisors contacted, 59 (24 per cent) returned the questionnaire. All respondents noted a comparable level of education for operators of routine and Stat instrumentation. Eighty-five per cent reported that their operators had B.S. degrees. Only 15 per cent said that laboratorians with associate degrees were running their analyzers. Thus, while manufacturers may claim that virtually anyone can run these instruments, the truth is that hospitals continue to assign medical technologists to these highly automated tasks.

Thirty-one per cent of the chemistry sections represented in our survey processed I to 40 routine specimens per day; 32 per cent ran 41 to 100 routine specimens dally; and 37 per cent tested more than 100. Table I shows the mean levels of skill and job satisfaction of operators performing routine and Stat tests on chemistry analyzers in small, medium, and large laboratories.

We found no statistically significant differences in either skill or job satisfaction levels, regardless of workload. Stat operators posted slightly lower skill and satisfaction levels than laboratorians running routine specimens, but the results were not statistically meaningful.

To determine whether the skill level associated with an analyzer had any bearing on ob satisfaction, we computed a correlation coefficient. If these analyzers do not boost ob satisfaction, this particular strategy for combating the labor shortage doesn't have a chance. There was no significant correlation between skill and satisfaction levels (r = 0.02). Chemistry labs processing more than 100 routine specimens per day reported that job satisfaction improved very slightly as skill levels increased (r = 0.34).

We believe these results offer evidence that highly automated, low-skill analyzers are not likely to enhance job satisfaction among medical technologists or to bolster retention. As one respondent pointed out, "There is more to running an instrument than pushing buttons. Job satisfaction is enhanced by learning, maintenance, troubleshooting, special testing, and calibrations. " Our data seem to support the traditional management theory that workers become dissatisfied when their work is oversimplified.

The current generation of automated instrumentation is less labor-intensive than its ancestors. Ease of operation will increase even more as technology advances. One must question the value of assigning highly educated and experienced medical technologists to operate such instruments. An examination of the sophisticated curriculum of any undergraduate medical technology program will suggest how easily a program wi professional could become frustrated and dissatisfied if unable to use those hard-earned skills.

Attempts to retain staff by increasing automation may speed the exodus instead. In tracking graduates of our MT program, we have found that when laboratorians become bored, they tend to leave the profession for more interesting and more challenging careers. We conclude that management should consider the needs and educational level of potential staff members before rushing to bring streamlined high technology into the lab. n
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Author:Lehmann, Craig; Leiken, Alan M.; Cocolis, Pauline
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Words:1018
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