Swine flu outbreak shines spotlight on lab-tech shortage

Lab technicians aren't usually seen, as they work in settings far away from the flow of patient care. But when there's a shortage of these specialists--who are responsible for conducting most of the tests physicians use to diagnose and treat patients--their absence is keenly felt.

The recent outbreak of swine flu reminded many professionals that while they may be hobbling along, their labs aren't adequately staffed. Many hospitals had lab technicians working double shifts just to perform the necessary flu testing, including Vanderbilt University Hospital's lab, notes chief pathologist Michael Laposata.

Right now, vacancy rates for different lab specialties range from roughly 8 to 10 percent, though some hospitals are at a scary 50 percent job-vacancy rate. Part of the reason may be money. While the profession requires similar levels of education to nursing, it doesn't pay as well, with starting salaries ranging from about $27,000 to $58,000 depending on the job and educational level required.

Hoping to avoid even worse shortages in the future, hospitals are working to train new lab recruits at local community colleges, encouraging displaced or laid off workers to retrain and more. If they don't succeed, however, things could be grim. While the federal government predicts that 138,000 new lab professionals will be needed by 2012, if things stay the same only 50,000 will be trained by that time.

To learn more about the lab tech shortage:
- read this Wall Street Journal piece