COLA: Two Perspectives on a Successful Summit
COLA’s annual Laboratory Enrichment Forum brings a diverse group of lab professionals, who come together to share perspectives and ideas for solving challenges in lab medicine. In May, Mike Pratt and Lee Barnard participated in this year’s forum, a first for U.S. HealthTek, and it proved to be an invaluable event with interesting takeaways for our industry.
Tackling Workforce Challenges
By Lee Barnard
The forum’s goal this year was to unite as an industry to address one of our biggest challenges: the shortage of workers in healthcare in general and laboratories specifically. The group agreed that the key areas needing attention were laboratory aides/assistants, information technology, and laboratory technicians. You can’t provide healthcare without these pillars.
COLA kicked it off with a daylong Workforce Action Alliance Summit, which was an invitation-only executive round table of roughly 75 professionals made up of pathologists, C-Suite executives, doctors, phlebotomy technicians, and more, from all levels and disciplines. There were presentations followed by round table discussions, which were informative – and sometimes heated, which happens when passionate people discuss difficult issues. But we all agreed that part of the shortage problem is the one-two punch of burnout and low pay. From my seat, the “hangover” from the two-year pandemic burnout was difficult to recover from, but it’s important to acknowledge that this high turnover/worker shortage was a challenge prior to COVID. For example, if you look at medical technology pay, it has been traditionally low, especially with phlebotomy and IT technicians.
A presentation by Christine Bean, Chief Learning Officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, was particularly helpful as she has a finger on the pulse of why people are leaving – and why they are staying. Here are just a few of her key reveals:
- More than a quarter of lab professionals are considering leaving their organization within the next year.
- 22% reported that the pandemic impacted their decision to stay or leave. Among those who intend to leave, 38% said the pandemic impacted their decision.
- 22% rate their mental health as either “poor” or “fair.”
- 42% of public health lab workers intend to leave their lab within four years. The top reasons for leaving include salary (52%); lack of career path (42%); and complexity of administrative bureaucracy (21%).
- The top reasons for staying include benefits (70%); job security (62%); and their relationship with peers (40%).
It was encouraging to see that despite an expected four-year staff turnover, the workforce’s overall job satisfaction is high; 97% know the work they do is important, and 91% are satisfied with the organization they are serving.
Collectively, the group decided that raising the awareness of opportunities in the lab industry could be a solution, and that elevating the importance of our work to a wider, general audience would be a worthy goal. We explored big ideas, including national campaigns and even advertising on TV. My personal view is that the average lay person doesn’t understand what medical technology does, or why it’s critical, so any effort in this direction would be a good start.
But the organizations that hire are going to have to address the fair compensation issue; in my view, the “easiest” part is hiring at a higher salary; what is harder is so-called “salary compression,” where companies hire new employees near or even over what current employees are receiving. This can lead to serious personnel trouble, and adjusting salaries for equity can get expensive for companies in the long run.
Our industry will continue to do work on these issues, but compliments to COLA for engaging the community on these difficult topics. Related, I feel strongly about the need for a normalization of job information throughout the industry, in order to create access to true national workforce data, which would be invaluable for both data analysis and practical solutions. This would be analogous to our collecting of data at a national level during COVID, but here would be a single source for job descriptions, salaries broken down by region, and other key data points.
In a follow-up from COLA’s CEO Nancy Stratton after the conference, she identified the three priorities that we can all work together on:
- Strengthen the data we have to understand the current laboratory workforce shortage.
- Work together to communicate career pathways.
- Standardize lab professional titles to support unity and to educate the public.
Stay tuned for more from COLA and our industry on these points.
COLA Forum Overview
By Mike Pratt
In addition to being our first time attending COLA Laboratory Enrichment Forum conference, we were also a sponsor. I went there straight from the Executive War College conference, and the first thing I noticed was the overlap of topics. There was much discussion from both conferences on the pivoting of labs from COVID, embracing digital pathology, and how AI might affect clinical labs specifically and healthcare in general.
As COLA is one of America’s leading laboratory accreditors, I was impressed with the programs and the quality of people attracted to it. COLA is a leading physician-directed accrediting organization (and the first to obtain federal approval under CLIA), that serves laboratories of all types, sizes, and complexities. It was especially valuable to be there as we’re proud to have COLA as a partner, and our presence and sponsorship of the event was a way of showing our appreciation for their work.
The workforce topic continued to be front and center throughout the Laboratory Enrichment Forum conference. My first takeaway, when I heard specifically about shortages in the IT area, was that U.S. HealthTek and other digital lab providers are well-poised to help organizations with their IT needs. And as typical at these gatherings, I received great feedback in the casual conversations that happen at these events.
The conference especially attracted laboratories servicing the Midwest, some of which are physician-owned and many that serve patients in rural areas. They were interested in learning about innovations in mobile phlebotomy, as that is critical in less-populated areas. Conversely, a demand for mobile solutions is growing with more affluent customers, who are busy and want someone to come to them. Serving these two disparate populations through mobile phlebotomy was an interesting and timely topic of conversation.
And, no surprise, AI got a lot of attention. One study we discussed during the session happy hour took a few hundred patients and divided them between human doctors and an AI-driven health care alternative. Both groups were given tasks where they had to read slides and communicate results to patients. Surprisingly, the AI provider proved to be more accurate and was deemed to have a better bedside manner. While this may prompt some physicians and labs to be concerned with being replaced, the future seems to be a long way off – AI is massively expensive and the reimbursement for its cost is still an unknown. I was not alone in seeing it as something that won’t ever replace human healthcare providers, but it could prove to be a valuable tool in increasing both the quality of care and the number of patients served.
I knew that COLA is great at working with the industry to keep labs ahead of the curve when it comes to processes, but it was good to witness the partnerships and collaborative spirit in person. Though many lab managers and techs came to benefit from the excellent educational sessions that count toward CME credit, it’s clear that the discussions and exchange of information during the conference were just as valuable to the group. Thanks to COLA for hosting such an educational and beneficial meeting!