Robotics and automation are helping to fill in the gaps in medical laboratories created by a shortage of medical technologists (MTs). Automated laboratory systems pick up the grunt work that once made workdays dull for MTs. And executives at diagnostic labs are using robotics to help control costs.
Automation Ameliorates Shortage
Staffing shortages are a major challenge for labs.
"We've been able to cope with the shortage, because we've automated or robotized some of what we do in the lab," says Elissa Passiment, executive vice president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science. "But this has done nothing to lessen the need; it has just helped us avoid closing labs."
But some observers say hospitals and other employers of medical technologists are responsible for their own staffing woes. "The shortage of med techs is caused by poor pay and bad working conditions," says John Kershaw, chief operating officer of Sysmex America, a laboratory diagnostic systems maker in Mundelein, Illinois.
In any case, no one foresees a healthcare industry without med techs.
"We don't really see that we're going to be able to reduce manpower, but we can reduce preanalytical errors with automation," says John Sherer, compliance officer for CompuNet Clinical Laboratories in Dayton.
A More Analytical Role
Experts believe automation is turning lab workers into knowledge workers.
"We like to think it's enhancing careers by taking away mundane tasks and allowing technical personnel to concentrate on more important things," says Sherer, who also chairs the American Medical Technologists' federal/government affairs committee. In hematology, for example, "automation allows techs to screen particular cells instead of looking at every cell," he says.
Often, as machines take over one function in the laboratory, medical innovation creates new challenges for human workers.
"As automation takes over routine lab tasks, med techs move into another area where they need special knowledge that hasn't yet been automated," Kershaw says. "Preanalytic jobs such as transcription and sample sorting may cease to exist." But MTs who want the opportunity can readily move to a more analytical function in the lab.
Automation is not distributed evenly over all diagnostic labs in the country. Labs in small, rural hospitals and in physicians' offices have the least automation and the highest MT vacancy rates; big-city medical centers and blood centers have the most automation and less severe staff shortages.
In blood centers, "infectious disease testing and serologic testing has all been automated," says Dr. James AuBuchon, chairman of the clinical transfusion medicine committee at the AABB (formerly the American Association of Blood Banks). "I don't anticipate big future changes, because all the automation that could be brought in has been brought in."
Learning the Systems
Automation might change the training requirements for medical technologists.
To cut costs and reduce errors, "there's an increasing push for simplification and standardization such that less and less training is needed" for lab workers in blood centers, AuBuchon says. "On the other hand, we will still need medical technologists and technicians, and they will need to be increasingly computer literate."
But given the pace and breadth of technological change, med techs end up getting much of their education on the job. "There are so many different lab automation systems," Sherer says. "It would be difficult to give MTs training for all of them."
And the learning curve will continue to be steep. "In the next five to 15 years, there's going to be an explosion of new tests," Passiment says. "We won't be able to keep up with the demand for medical technologists, even with automation."