A staffing crisis may be looming in the nation’s clinical testing laboratories, and many labs are already facing the problem. Labs are understaffed, while the demand for clinical testing is only going up. Turnover is high among lab technicians, as burnout and job dissatisfaction leads them to seek employment elsewhere or abandon their lab tech careers altogether.
For lab directors, frequent turnover, diminished staffing, and employee unhappiness are vexing issues. A staff of motivated, qualified, and experienced technicians is one of the keys to generating the high volume of accurate, reportable results clinicians and healthcare organizations demand.
How can you hold on to your best technicians while getting your newest team members up to the same skill level quickly?
As we’ll see, an efficient and effective training program is essential. Well-trained technicians are more likely to stay in their jobs. New technicians perform at a higher level sooner when their labs prepare them for the variations they’ll encounter when working with real patient samples.
The State of the Lab Technician Career Field
For anyone considering a career as a clinical laboratory technician, the news is good. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for lab technicians is expected to grow 12% through to 2026. To put that in context, job growth for any occupation is projected to increase only 7% during that same period.
Even though labs are becoming more automated, technicians will still be needed to run the equipment properly — and they will be required in greater numbers than ever before.
But what represents an opportunity to budding technicians can also create a headache for lab directors. And the crisis isn’t in the far-off future of 2026; labs are dealing with staffing shortages now.
Citing an American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) survey, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science points out that the average vacancy rate for any type of medical laboratory is 7.2 percent. The same ASCP survey said most departments take between three and six months to replace a departed staff member.
Burnout Among Lab Techs
What is behind these vacancies and the high turnover rate experienced by many labs? One study published in MedicalLab Management points to burnout.
“Results of this study support the concept that as burned out employees start to feel emotionally exhausted, they will begin to look for ways to reduce that exhaustion, perhaps by leaving their current job. Further, as laboratory employees become burned out, they may begin to develop increased levels of cynicism and a lackadaisical attitude toward their job.”
— Effect of Burnout on Clinical Lab Turnover Intention, Tasia Hilton, Ph.D., MLS(ASCP)CM
As the study indicates, burned out technicians may either leave their labs or allow the quality of their work to deteriorate. Both situations can cause a lab’s output to dive. Tests will back up as labs try to do more with fewer staff members; mistakes will creep in, triggering retests and endangering the lab’s reputation with clinicians.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining in the burnout study. Burnout that leads to turnover is easily foreseeable. Emotional exhaustion and professional efficacy are both correlated with burnout, the study’s author writes.
In other words, when technicians feel confident they know how to do their jobs, and they’re good at their jobs, they are more likely to be satisfied with their work and less likely to leave.
The Role of Training in a Clinical Lab
A high-quality training program can help a clinical lab reduce turnover, increase employee satisfaction, and increase efficiency by:
- Helping technicians feel they are adequately prepared to do their jobs well.
- Helping new staff members learn how to do their jobs well (and helping veteran staff members improve).
How Third-Party Reference Materials Can Improve Your Clinical Lab Training Program
As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Any training program should allow for significant hands-on time running tests as defined in the lab’s operating procedures. Before a new lab hire is involved in the generation of true patient results, repeated practice under the guidance and supervision of a trained lab professional is a must. Well-characterized samples should be used for training purposes, so test results can be evaluated for accuracy and precision.
This is why clinical labs need access to a steady stream of reference materials that can be sourced reliably and cost-effectively, but also are designed to behave like challenging test samples that will expose technique variability and failures.
Why Not Real Patient Samples?
We recommend integrating patient-like controls into your technician training and monitoring program. By “patient-like,” we mean reference materials that are manufactured in a matrix that is as close to a true patient sample as possible and enable evaluation of the entire testing workflow -- from sample preparation to final result. Ideally, such controls should also be designed as weakly positive samples near the assay cutoff; such a design will detect technique variations more readily than a high positive sample.
Why not actual patient samples? First, because they can be hard to source and expensive. Second, because they’re rarely well characterized, and thorough characterization takes time and money - two items that most clinical labs can’t afford to spare.
You need to know exactly what you’re getting with a control. To effectively train your technicians and maintain quality control in your lab, you need to know how an assay should respond to a sample, and to compare it to how it actually does respond.
At SeraCare, we know how to design the right controls to ensure that your training and quality control efforts are fruitful. Our ACCURUN line of molecular and serology controls are patient-like, full process controls that pressure test assay and technician performance. Just as important, they are ready-to-use, and readily available, offering a reliable, cost-effective tool to train staff and monitor performance.
Optimize Your Clinical Lab Operations
A high-quality training program is just one element of a well-functioning clinical testing lab. Get more tips for optimizing your lab operations in our free eBook, “Best Practices for Clinical Labs: Strategies for Implementing a Best-in-Class Quality Control System.”