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Lab personnel shortage: the growing crisis.

With fewer graduates entering the clinical laboratory field and more employess leaving a serious personnel shortage has developed . Lab managers must identify and implement solutions.

Clinical laboratories are not quite ready to shanghai staff, but the national shortage of lab personnel has prompted unusual recruitment measures:

Desperate to fill a technologist-supervisor position, an upstate New York blood bank advertised a starting salary of up to $66,000 plus an apartment rentfree for one year.

A hospital offered 30 days' vacation for all new midnight-to-8 a.m. technologists. (I was told that current employees at the hospital agreed to this recruiting technique.)

In one large city, technologists have been recruited with an incentive of one year of free parking in a parking garage adjacent to the hospital.

Another hospital offered meal allowances for breakfast and lunch for a period of up to one year.

A Federal hospital offers greatly reduced costs for house or apartment rentals.

Growth in the number of classified ads in MLO for positions available reflects the increasing demand. In 1986, the magazine averaged 2.5 classified-ad pages per month. The average rose to 5.4 pages in 1987, and this year, the March, May, and June issues each carried a record 9.7 classified-ad pages. Metropolitan newspapers are experiencing similar increases in laboratory helpwanted ads.

Increasingly, hospital recruiters are renting booths at laboratory society meetings. The North California division of the American Society for Medical Technology had requests from 14 hospitals for booth space at its 1988 spring meeting.

One reason many health care segments are struggling with staff shortages is that they neglected recruitment and retention issues during the prospective payment upheaval of recent years. As hospitals concentrated on cutting costs (including Labor outlays) while increasing productivity, they began to lose personnel to more lucrative, less stressful fields. At the same time, fewer students were choosing health careers; medical technology and other educational programs shrank.

The situation in New York exemplifies the nation's overall health care personnel problem. In January, the New York State Labor-Health Industry Task Force issued a report on the shortage of health care workers. The report stated that the number of disabled and chronically ill people will continue to increase as advances in medical treatment prolong lives, AIDS admissions will "increase, the elderly population will expand, and the physic ian-to-population ratio will grow, contributing to an increased demand for health services and personnel.

On the supply side, the report noted that the number of new graduates from health occupation programs is stagnant or falling. For one thing, women now have a wider variety of career choices, and fewer are choosing health care professions. In addition, New York's under-35 population will decline 10 per cent by the year 2000. All of this is seen leading to fierce competition for young workers.

AIDS treatment alone will require 3,382 new hospital beds in New York State by 1991 and 700 more technicians and technologists, among other employees, another state health report said.

The New York task force recommended improving overall compensation and working conditions for health care occupations facing personnel shortages, fostering career mobility, making more effective use of the work force, establishing a more effective way to assess future needs of health care personnel, and encouraging new entrants to the health industry. Task force members said educational and credentialing barriers that limit access to jobs without significantly improving health care delivery should be revised to reflect the current lowsupply, high-demand situation.

Stories about the national nursing shortage-the first health care staffing crunch to emerge-serve as cautionary tales for laboratories that have begun feeling a staffing pinch. In 1987, New Jersey nurses left $12-per-hour jobs in hospitals for $20-per-hour jobs with agencies that placed them in a nursing pool. They then returned to their former positions at a much higher pay rate.

A New Jersey Hospital Association survey found that 68 hospitals spent a total of $15 million to fill nursing vacancies with temporary help during the first six months of 1987. That was up 85 per cent from the amount spent in the same period a year earlier.

Already, states have started compiling ominous statistics about the lack of laboratory personnel. Hospitals in New York State have a 5.3 per cent vacancy rate for technologists and technicians, according to the task force report. Some 200 lab workers were needed by the 146 hospitals that reported vacancies. Of these hospitals, 21 per cent cited severe recruitment problems, 14 per cent severe retention problems.

The March 1988 newsletter of the Wyoming State Society for Medical Technology said the state had more laboratory jobs available in 1987 than it could fill with graduates of its own MT programs. The newsletter also reported an increased number of medical technology job openings in the neighboring states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa; a rise to 10 to 15 per week in newspaper ads for technologists in the Omaha, Neb., area late last year; and a decline in MT program graduates in California to fewer than 200 students in 1987.

In a letter published in MLD last October, William N. Bigler, director of San Francisco State University's Center for Advanced Medical Technology, commented on the low number of California graduates: "At this rate, it will take more than 100 years to replace this state's more than 22,000 licensed technologists."

The last dozen years have seen a 27 per cent decline in medical technology programs accredited by the American Medical Association's Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation-from 696 in 1976 to 509 last year. More precipitously over the same period, accredited cytotechnology programs dropped 54 per cent, from 102 to 47, and medical laboratory technician certificate programs dropped 70 per cent, from 153 to 46. On the other hand, medical laboratory technician associate degree programs growing shortage of medical laboratory professionals. We will have to learn to collect information from numerous sources so we can plan intelligently for the future. Health care professional organizations need to address these employee supply-and-demand issues now.

If we want to hire and retain qualified people, we must identify both short- and long-term solutions to what is the most critical and challenging problem that clinical laboratories have faced in the past decade. Here's a list of proposed solutions to help keep our laboratories fully staffed:

* Make salaries more competitive with those for comparable professional positions.

* Substantially raise pay differentials for the evening and night shifts.

* Develop and institute flexible scheduling.

* Increase awareness and recognition of what medical technologists do and who they are. Insist that they be treated as professionals.

* Redesign job descriptions, commensurate with knowledge and skills, to improve job satisfaction.

* Expand Federal support for allied health education. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, recently introduced bill S. 2229, which reauthorizes the Health Professions Education Act. This measure provides for grant money to graduate programs, support of secondary school and college recruitment activities, education loans for clinical laboratory science programs, and greater access to Federal funding for laboratory science programs seeking aid for minority and disadvantaged students. But allied health programs have not received any money under the act since 1981.

* Increase application of technology. New technology holds the greatest potential for improved lab productivity and efficiency. *Further increase positions split between hospital departments (for example, a technologist working in the lab and in radiology).

* Insure adequate support staff for the laboratory. Let less skilled employees handle clerical work, answer the telephone, and perform other tasks that do not require a technologist's skills.

* Insist on efficient use of human resources.

* Reduce paperwork in areas of the lab that aren't computerized.

* Insure adequate time for supervisory functions during the normal eight-hour workday.

* Improve the working environment with more modem and attractive work areas that have superior ventilation, air conditioning, and heating systems. The workplace should also incorporate noise control measures and have a paging system that does not shriek or otherwise increase stress.

*Allow at least three paid business leave days per year for continuing education purposes.

Recruiting and retaining laboratory personnel will become more competitive and difficult. We are all in this crisis together, and we cannot sit back and expect someone else to take care of it for us.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Martin, Bettina G.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jul 1, 1988
Previous Article:Professional groups weigh new lab bills.
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