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Automation Reshapes Opportunities for Med Techs

Automation Reshapes Opportunities for Med Techs

John Rossheim

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

With US vacancy rates for certified/licensed med tech staff hovering around 7 percent, 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 in Bethesda, Maryland. “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 is also judiciary councillor for the American Medical Technologists in Park Ridge, Illinois. 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.

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