The clinical laboratory profession has come a long way since its inception into the medical field. Today, clinical laboratorians play an ever increasing role in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
New tests and better technology continue to be developed to offer care providers with the information necessary to provide patients with cutting edge care. With that said, the clinical laboratory science field continues to face worker shortages similar to those faced by nursing professionals.
With a large number of laboratory professionals retiring in the coming years, one key to reducing the effects felt by a workforce shortage in the profession is to continue emphasis on developing and implementing laboratory automation technology.
Even simple forms of automation such as sample processing can go a long way to free up laboratory professionals to focus more of their time on tasks requiring more skill.
Tackling High Volumes
I have worked in the field of clinical laboratory science for 2 years in the core laboratory at the Dallas VA Medical Center (DVAMC). The DVAMC is one of the largest VA hospitals in the country with more 500 beds, handling more than 13,000 admissions and 700,000 outpatient visits a year.1
As such, our laboratory rarely if ever sees a slow day with most days bordering on extremely busy. On a typical day in the core laboratory we typically handle more than 1000 chemistry, 800 special chemistry, 700 hematology, and 350 urinalysis samples.
To accomplish this feat, our laboratory makes use of several automated analyzers, automated specimen processing and automated specimen storage. Without all of the automation, I think it would be difficult for our laboratory to function at a high level with the current amount of staff.
Facing a Shortage
As everyone in the clinical laboratory is well aware, there is currently a workforce shortage in the profession. The 2011 vacancy survey of U.S. Clinical laboratories found there to be vacancy rates anywhere from 5 to almost 12 percent for different areas in the clinical laboratory.2
Couple this with the surveys finding that many technologists are part of the baby boomer generation who will be retiring within the next 5 years and it is easy to see that efforts should be made to alleviate this burden on the profession.2
It seems that there are realistically two ways to approach this problem. One is to better recruit and promote the profession to the younger generation. The second option is to continue to implement more automation in the laboratory.
Automation has been proven to not only reduce errors from manual steps in the testing process, but also increase a facility's operational capacity.3 Another benefit to automation is the increase in testing efficiency which typically results in a reduction of laboratory testing turnaround times; especially in laboratories which make use of automatic result verification.
Additionally the implementation of automation creates a slew of opportunities for those clinical technologists who are more apt with computer science and engineering tasks.
It seems that there is no stopping the progress of technology and eventually all laboratories will make use of some sort of automation to improve daily work functions.
However, automation does have some drawbacks which will surely be a turn off to those who have been in the profession for a long time.
One large laboratory's chemistry section which employs the use of an automated chemistry setup found that their employees spent roughly 42 percent of their time simply loading and unloading specimens.3
Thus, with more and more laboratories moving towards automation centered systems, there will definitely be a demand for people with the skills to maintain mechanical equipment.
Another major con many have with laboratory automation is that of the cost to implement such a system. As with all forms of technology, the price of automation will continue to decrease as new improvements and models hit the market.
The future of laboratory automation only looks to get better and better as new technologies and new instrumentation are developed. Many surely will initially be hesitant to embrace automation; however, it appears only to be increasing its' role in the modern day clinical laboratory.