Laboratory tests play a significant role in detecting, diagnosing and monitoring diseases. Clinical decisions are often influenced by test results that indicate, for example, whether a patient is having a heart attack or needs a medication adjustment; whether a patient is a candidate for surgery or chemotherapy; whether a patient is healthy enough to return home from a hospital stay. Waiting for the answers stress patients.

However, producing these results quickly is increasingly challenging. A constantly growing number of patients and a greater number of available tests means that more samples are headed to the lab. There also is a shortage of staff to process the samples and keep up with the rising demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for lab workers has grown 13 percent in the last year, almost double the average for other U.S. jobs.

This shortage of skilled workers has been decades in the making—the result of an aging workforce and a shrinking number of accredited training programs across the country. In fact, the number of such programs available to those interested in pursuing this field has decreased by nearly 25 percent since 1990.  

But despite challenges with attracting new talent, it is a great time for STEM students to consider a career in diagnostics. The field of in vitro diagnostics (IVD) is reaching an exciting tipping point: historically antiquated technology and processes are making way for unprecedented advancements that will help tackle testing challenges with greater speed and efficiency.

Laboratory testing plays a critical role in patient care, in particular in the inpatient and emergency care settings, with tests conducted on nearly all of hospital patients and more than half of emergency patients. So, when a looming staffing crisis foreshadows a risky impact on patient care, manufacturers can help to ease the burden. Working together means more exciting opportunities for laboratory staff, greater productivity so physicians can have their patients’ results faster, better patient satisfaction when wait times are shortened, and overall enhanced patient safety with more safeguards in place to help prevent human error.

Laboratorians across the U.S. are enthusiastic about implementing state-of-the-art technology and assays. Siemens Healthineers, the company I work for, provides more than 10 billion IVD tests to labs globally each year and built its newest offering, the Atellica Solution, to deliver the innovations laboratories worldwide need to modernize and future-proof their operations. The solution produces results for the most common tests run in the laboratory: pregnancy tests, blood glucose, electrolytes, hormones and lipids, and specialty tests. Staff can now spend less time maintaining the analyzers thanks to built-in quality control features that are important for delivering accurate results.

Automation reduces the number of manual procedures staff must perform, offering laboratories standardization and consistency that leads to better patient satisfaction, and, potentially, patient safety. Further, laboratory staff benefit from a decreased exposure to patient fluids through features that reduce sample handling. The laboratory also can now process patient samples by priority order on one instrument using technology that transports each test tube individually so that emergency samples for cases such as cardiac emergencies and sepsis can cut to the front of the line.

However, for some patients, the amount of blood that needs to be drawn is more important than the speed of their results. Parents of infant patients with little blood to spare can gain peace of mind with laboratory advances, as can patients who face extended hospital stays. Patients undergoing extended hospital stays sometimes have their blood drawn daily, which in many cases for these sick patients is more frequently than their bodies can replenish. With new technology designed with the patient in mind, sensitive and precise results can be produced from very small sample volumes.

All these features are designed to help the laboratory operate more efficiently and ultimately ease the burdens facing many laboratorians today. Yet, many laboratories regularly face budget cuts and, as a result, are unable to upgrade their technology as often as the increasing patient testing demand would encourage. Modern technology advancements afford laboratorians the ability to keep up with the testing demands of today’s patients while improving turnaround time, quality of results, ease of use, and safety when handling patient samples. The latest innovations and technological advancements also are helping to restore the clinical laboratory as an exciting place to establish one’s career and address the pitfalls of understaffed laboratories.

While technology and patient testing needs will continue to evolve, what remains absolute is the fact that IVD testing plays a critical role in detecting, diagnosing and monitoring diseases, and laboratory staff provide undeniable value to both the patient experience and the healthcare system. Without the silent heroes in lab coats who also serve as detectives of disease states and interpreters of patients’ DNA data, the laboratory would fail to serve its purpose within the health care system. For this critical reason, it is in all of our best interest as stakeholders in the health system to invest in the clinical laboratory by at least encouraging education in the fields that will alleviate the staffing shortage.