Lab Tech Shortage Critical

June 3, 2009
Special Feature

The recent outbreaks of swine flu have highlighted what some healthcare experts say is a critical shortage of laboratory technicians in the US.

The recent outbreaks of swine flu have highlighted what some healthcare experts say is a critical shortage of laboratory technicians in the US. Some are equating the risks to patient safety that could result from a shortfall of qualified lab workers to the threat posed by a lack of nurses and primary care physicians. If a major epidemic were to occur, say some medical experts, many laboratories, especially those in smaller hospitals, would be swamped by the flood of necessary lab tests.

The shortage of lab technicians has been flying under the radar for some time. Currently, there are about 300,000 technicians nationwide, which is not enough to meet the demand. Hospitals, for example, are reporting lab technician job vacancies that can last as long as a year, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which certifies lab technicians, says the job vacancy rate in some states is as high as 50%. The gap is expected to widen, according to government statistics, which predict a need for 138,000 additional lab technicians by 2012 compared to the only 50,000 new technicians who will be trained during that time.

Part of the reason for the shortage, according to some observers, is that a lab technician needs the same level of education and training as a nurse, but doesn’t get paid as well. The starting salary for a lab technician can be as much as 40% lower than for an RN. Also, lab technician training programs are expensive to run and as many as a third of them have closed in the past 10 years, which is contributing to the shortage.