A Crisis on Healthcare's Frontlines

three medical frontline workers talking

A little less than a decade ago, some medical researchers raised a startling possibility.

What if patients couldn’t get diagnostic lab tests because there was no one in the lab to do them?

That prophecy seems to be getting closer to reality.

A Quiet Crisis on Healthcare's Frontlines

Nursing shortages may be well publicized. But there’s a quieter crisis creeping up – namely a shrinking number of people available to provide vital testing services. A recent study by Mercer says the shortfall of these critical employees is nearing 100,000. And lab workers are just one part or a problem that also includes certified patient-care and nursing assistants, as well as imaging technologists and many more – the people collectively known as healthcare’s frontlines.

“Few other industries are racing the clock to find a future-ready workforce like today's health care administrators," Mercer’s Jason Narlock told CNN.

Frontline positions may have fewer education requirements and command lower salaries . But at 60% of healthcare’s workforce, they’re the backbone of the industry even more so since changes to healthcare have given them increasingly prominent roles. And a shortage of lab techs is more than an inconvenience, Mercer’s Narlock told CNN. "It creates a backlog to process lab and other diagnostic tests.”

Education Benefits - a Creative Solution to a Dire Problem

For healthcare systems facing an aging population, it’s a dire problem. And the pool of ready-made talent simply isn’t big enough to fill the gaps. Few programs in rural and remote areas is one issue. Limited distance learning is another. Answering is going to require employers to get scrappy. Mercer’s Narlock told CNN about one Ohio healthcare system that found a wellspring of diagnostic technician candidates in an unlikely place among laid-off manufacturing employees. "These workers already had some skills that prepared them for this training,” he said.

Employers would do well to follow that lead. But they should be looking in-house as well. True, retraining existing employees for different jobs rings a little of robbing Peter to pay Paul. But such employees already know your culture. And as clients have told us, it’s often easier to replace an administrative employee than a clinical one. Plus you’ll be rewarding dedicated employees with opportunities for advancement – something many told our recent survey they were hungry for.

Recruit, Retain, Upskill

That last part – hunger for opportunity highlights another of today’s big issues: retention. Low unemployment is giving people choices. And career advancement is the key to keeping people at all levels. Entry-level healthcare employees may arrive in the industry looking for steady work and dependable schedules. But like every other employee, they long for more, whether that means a bigger paycheck or a loftier career. Their ascent may mean a regular flow of open positions. But the promise of clear and navigable career tracks is likely to attract newcomers to fill them.

All of the above – recruiting, retaining, and upskilling – share a common thread; carefully planned education programs. Successful training will require partnerships with schools; it will also require robust approaches that are both nimble enough to adapt to new modes of skill delivery, and well organized enough to target the skills you need, and funnel people to them.

The good news is such opportunities are bound to be noticed by frontline employees a historically underserved segment of workers. "Everyone knows what a nurse does,” a clinical laboratory director told the Wall Street Journal, “but no one sees the workers in the laboratory, who…are responsible for about 70% to 80% of all diagnostic and treatment decisions made by physicians.”

Back in 2009, that lab director talked about how easy it is to lose sight of the frontline value.

Clearly, that’s about to change. Healthcare employers would do well to be ready.

Written by: Doug Stefano

About the Author

Doug Stefano at Bright Horizons

As Vice President, Healthcare, Doug is responsible for leading growth efforts in the healthcare vertical in collaboration with team members across all Bright Horizons’ services. Doug joined Bright Horizons after more than 24 years with Standard Register/Taylor Communications, where he held a variety of roles in sales, business development, sales management and most recently as Vice President of Sales in their healthcare business unit. Doug is a graduate of Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Science in Management/Marketing.