Where have all the Techs Gone?

Electronic media is replete with articles and editorials of employers lamenting the shortage of workers. Signs offering hiring bonuses hang outside of restaurants, stores, and other retail outlets all across the country.

The inability to find workers has forced employers to take another look at their business model and reevaluate whether the model is still viable in its current form. The power balance in the employer/ employee dynamic has shifted. Employers accustomed to having their choice of applicants now find themselves scrambling to find workers.

No schools, No students

The healthcare industry, including the medical laboratory, is not exempt from the shortage despite healthcare experts and administrators knowing that the trending laboratory employee shortage was inevitable years ago.

Laboratory school administrators and managers have been sounding the alarm about the lack of community college and university medical technology program applications. Many academic medical technology programs are shuttered due to a lack of students.  The decrease in the number of students going into the laboratory field and the normal attrition rate of older workers retiring or moving on to higher-paying occupations has led to a high vacancy rate and a loss of expertise.


The pandemic has added more pressure on a cohort of employees experiencing the stress of a new and unknown danger. These allied health professionals were (and are) the front-line response to a disease threatening everyone, regardless of economic or social demographics. Lab worker burnout has become a documented phenomenon

We call them heroes, but in reality, these are the same people working every day (pandemic or not), serving patients and delivering quality test results. Labs across the nation are filled with these everyday people. But just like everyone, laboratory workers have families, feelings, and needs they are trying to meet while being asked to give a little more. Many have little left to give and are now leaving the field to pursue other less stressful occupations or to simply enjoy the life they have worked so hard to build.

Start recruiting early

How can healthcare organizations stem the tide of those choosing to leave the lab and simultaneously attract young fresh minds to the unglamorous and less financially rewarding but necessary field of laboratory testing?

Presentations to elementary school children are a great way to introduce the next generation to the laboratory field. What child doesn’t like looking into a microscope to see their own red and white blood cells? Roadshows put on in junior high and high schools are a great way to kindle interest in healthcare just when students are beginning to ponder the question of what they want as a career.

Educational Aid

The cost of college continues to rise. Scholarships are often garnered by high-performing “A” students. But there is a pool of “B” students that could also benefit from financial assistance and would be just as welcomed into clinical laboratories. Broadening and diversifying the qualifications to receive a scholarship and financial aid could conceivably add to the pool of potential laboratory workers. Another unique idea is to allow laboratory workers’ dependents access to unused employee educational benefits.

Wellness in the Lab

Resources should also be dedicated to retaining technicians and technologists who are considering leaving the laboratory field.  The level of compensation is meaningful, but studies have shown that employees often leave the job for more esoteric reasons. Reducing stress, supporting a culture of wellness, inclusiveness, and belonging can differentiate one workplace from another. The theme of workplace wellness was extensively discussed at this year’s ASCP 2021 annual meeting in Boston.

The Need is Real

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the laboratory to the health of the nation. The medical laboratory should use this moment in the spotlight to advocate for more resources and emphasize the necessity for more laboratory programs and students to meet the future testing needs of the nation.

Of course, many lab managers are wondering what to do today to stem the slow leak of personnel. Providing mental health support and financial incentives do work to keep these knowledgeable workers in the lab. Managers realize that laboratory science is a demanding high acuity job with little or no margin for error. To maintain quality, the healthcare industry will need to change its perceptions about the laboratory and address the lack of technicians and technologists with the same interest and retention resources given to nurses and doctors.

-Darryl Elzie, PsyD, MHA, MT(ASCP), CQA(ASQ), has been an ASCP Medical Technologist for over 30 years and has been performing CAP inspections for 15+ years. Dr. Elzie provides laboratory quality oversight for four hospitals, one ambulatory care center, and supports laboratory quality initiatives throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.

The State of Graduate Medical Education and Meeting Our Nation’s Health Needs

The Institute on Medicine (IOM), the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences that provides analysis and advice on national health issues, released its report “Graduate Medical Education that Meets the Nation’s Health Needs” on July 29, 2014. Citing a lack of transparency and accountability in our current system and discordance with producing the types of physicians necessary to meet our nation’s health needs, the IOM recommended a significant overhaul of our current system of graduate medical education (GME) financing and governance over the next ten years.

Since the creation of Medicare in 1965, the federal government has provided the majority of funding for the post-graduate training of physicians with about two-thirds provided by Medicare. Originally intended as a temporary measure until a more suitable one could be found, this system has financed GME since 1965. Approximately, $15 billion ($9.7 billion from Medicare) was spent in 2012 to support GME funding.1 The IOM’s report remain recommendations unless enacted into law by Congress so aggressive lobbying efforts are expected in the forthcoming months.

In fact, there has already been quick and varied response by multiple academic medical organizations: the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the American Hospital Association (AHA), and the American Medical Association (AMA) vehemently opposed and warned that the IOM’s recommendations would destabilize our current GME infrastructure while the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) supported the recommendations and the American College of Physicians (ACP) falls somewhere in between. If we break down the major recommendations of the report, the reasons for each organization’s opinions become more apparent but this does not necessarily help us to determine the best way to distribute GME funding to address our future healthcare workforce needs.

Currently, there are two components to GME funding from the federal government: direct and indirect. Direct graduate medical education (DGME) funding provides for the “direct costs” of teaching hospitals for the training of residents: the salaries and benefits of residents and the faculty who supervises them, the salaries of GME administrative staff, and allocated institutional overhead costs such as electricity, space rental, and maintenance. Each hospital receives DGME funding as a per-resident amount (PRA) which is hospital specific and calculated as the DGME costs in 1984 (or 1985) divided by the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) residents per year.2 This PRA is updated annually with an inflation factor and adjustment for that hospital’s resident count, limited, of course, by that hospital’s resident cap (number of allowed total residents) set by the Congressional Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997.

The Medicare portion of DGME is calculated by a ratio based on the number of total in-patient days in that hospital spent by Medicare patients divided by the total number of in-patient days by all patients. There are separate PRA’s for primary care and non-primary care residents with those in primary care specialties (family medicine, general internal medicine, general pediatrics, OB/Gyn, preventative medicine, geriatric medicine, general osteopathic medicine) receiving a slightly higher amount. This is due to a congressional freeze on PRA inflation updates on non-primary care residents in 1994 and 1995.

Indirect graduate medical education (IME) funding are additional amounts paid to teaching hospitals for the “indirect costs” of being a teaching hospital. They generally incur more costs than non-teaching hospital settings due to having a sicker patient load and more “non-quantifiable” costs (eg – residents ordering extra tests).3 This payment is based on a formula that takes into account the ratio between the number of interns and residents and the number of patient beds (IRB ratio) adjusted with a variable multiplier and IRB ratio caps that are set by Congress. IME funding is not weighted like DGME funding where the number of residents in their “initial residency period” (IRP) are counted as 1.0 FTE and those beyond this period as 0.5 FTE.

Of course, these funding formulas can get very complicated and are adjusted with each new Congressional legislative action on GME. But now that you have a rudimentary idea of how the federal government and Medicare fund our education as residents, let’s consider the recent IOM recommendations.

IOM Recommendation #1: aggregate GME funding should remain at current levels ($15 bil/yr) with adjustments only made for inflation over the next ten years while the recommended new GME policy is implemented; the bulk of funding ($10 bil/yr) will continue to come from Medicare.

Supporting Argument: the current GME system is unsustainable and needs to become more performance- and value-based as healthcare system evolves under healthcare reform; this would provide stable (albeit not increased) funding over this transitional period.

Opposing Argument: for years, academic medical associations and their allies have recommended an increase in GME funding stating that the rate of increase has not kept up with inflation and the expense of educating our nation’s future healthcare workforce; additionally, they have consistently recommended lifting the GME cap with little success.

IOM Recommendation #2: a new GME Policy Council should be established within the Office of Health and Human Services to provide guidance on GME issues and a new GME Center within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to administer GME funding.

Supporting Argument: more transparency and accountability is needed to make sure that our dollars are well spent to produce more efficient use and better health outcomes for patients.

Opposing Argument: more bureaucratic and inefficient “red tape” and hoops to jump through without added benefit.

IOM Recommendation #3: eliminate the DGME and IME structure and replace with an Operational Fund to finance existing GME programs; the other portion of funding would support a Transformational Fund focused on innovation and programs in needed and underserved areas.

Supporting Argument: the Operational Fund would provide for currently existing programs so as not to destabilize GME funding during the proposed transition; the Transformational Fund would be targeted to address the current geographic and subspecialty maldistribution that exists.

Opposing Argument: the geographic and subspecialty maldistribution is nothing new but merely funneling more money toward these areas will not necessarily provide more healthcare professionals in these underserved areas or specialties, especially as long as student loan financing structures remain as they are currently. This recommendation also will significantly affect the funding amounts currently received by teaching hospitals, especially urban based hospitals, where the majority of GME takes place.

IOM Recommendation #4: provide funding based on PRA only with geographic adjustments and end payments based on Medicare in-patient days, IRB ratio, and other factors currently in the funding formula. These PRA funds would be directed to the GME sponsors who are responsible for the actual educational content for the training of interns and residents rather than to teaching hospitals alone. GME sponsors can be teaching hospitals, educational institutions, community health centers, or GME consortia.4

Supporting Argument: funding would go directly to those responsible the actual educational content which may be a non-teaching hospital setting; studies do not support a physician workforce shortage, especially in primary care specialties.

Opposing Argument: this recommendation again will disproportionately hurt teaching hospitals as they tend to have a sicker patient load, have more patient beds, and have access to more expensive tests and treatments than more community-based and/or non-teaching hospitals; teaching hospitals often are the main settings for GME, although not necessarily the only settings, and may need to make cuts based on resident education versus operational costs of the hospital with reduction of resident slots as the outcome when a physician workforce shortage is looming.

The IOM recommendations assert to support a more targeted, performance-based investment in the training of our future healthcare workforce but do they really? Obviously, GME funding has been a hotly debated topic for the past 50 years so there are no simple solutions and everyone has their own biased opinion. Even though I have some health policy and advocacy training from my MPH and grassroots organizing background, I don’t profess to be a health policy wonk by any means so I encourage you to become more informed and decide your own opinion. And if so inclined, become more involved in health policy advocacy with the political action committees (PAC) of your affiliated academic medical organizations to lobby for your beliefs.

You can read or download an electronic copy of the report free online at: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2014/Graduate-Medical-Education-That-Meets-the-Nations-Health-Needs.aspx

1. Institute on Medicine (IOM). Graduate Medical Education that Meets the Nation’s Health Needs. July 29, 2014. 256 pages.

2. American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). Medicare Direct Graduate Medical Education (DGME) Payments; accessed on 8/8/14 at https://www.aamc.org/advocacy/gme/71152/gme_gme0001.html

3. T Johnson and TW Coons. Recent Developments in DGME and IME Payments. American Health Lawyers Association. Updated by Laurie Garvey on 3/16/10; accessed on 8/9/14 at http://www.healthlawyers.org/Events/Programs/Materials/Documents/MM10/coons_johnson.pdf

4. E. Salsberg. IOM Graduate Medical Education Report: Better Aligning GME Funding with Healthcare Workforce Needs. Health Affairs Blog. July 31, 2014; accessed on 8/10/14 at http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2014/07/31/iom-graduate-medical-education-report-better-aligning-gme-funding-with-health-workforce-needs/



-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.

Girls and Science

Almost 73 percent of laboratory professionals are women, so exposing young girls to science is important. The editors of Lab Medicine recently discovered this post on Scientific American that discusses gender bias in Lego’s minifigs. Series 11 features a woman scientist—complete with little Erlenmeyer flasks—which is definitely a step in the right direction.