I’m a lab guy.
No, I don’t wear a white coat and spend hours in a hospital basement lab running tests. But I do live, breathe and dream in the lab world – a world that, like that of all health systems, is now under intense pressure to keep up with demand while curbing costs and increasing quality and service.
Challenged by the ever changing health care environment and regulations, the lab is being put to the test not only by a rapidly evolving health care delivery model, but also risk shifting from payer to provider (e.g., bundled payments, capitated lives), aging patients adding more tests, and a growing number of lab workers who are nearing retirement.
Yes, I’m talking about the generation of Baby Boomers said to be creating new challenges in the health system and in the economy as a whole. As a large population of Boomers age and hit 65, there is an intense surge in the need for health services we’re not equipped to handle. As they retire, they cause labor shortages across all sectors and in specialized areas of health care, like in the clinical lab.
To help paint the picture, examine some of the headlines over the last decade: “The Baby Boomers’ Massive Impact on Health Care,” “AHA: Healthcare Industry should Prepare Now for Baby Boomers,” “Concerns Grow over Workforce Retirements and Skills Gaps,” and “Baby Boomers Creating ‘Silver Tsunami’ in Workforce.”
Before we take a look at the Boomer epidemic through the lens of the lab, let me first address why it’s so important that we care about the lab and its role in the health system. Though the lab is a small part of hospital spend (3 to 5 percent), the information lab tests provide impact more than 70 percent of medical decisions and comprise upwards of 80 percent of a patient’s EMR. Without lab data, a hospital can’t function, and – without an integrated and high-performing lab – health systems will struggle to achieve levels of peak performance.
Now that I’ve made my case for why labs matter, here are two ways I see that Boomers are challenging labs and how labs can meet these challenges:
- New payment schemes: As health systems are challenged to improve performance amid shrinking financial resources, labs have become a target. With Boomers getting more than four times the number of lab tests than those under 65 (who get an average of two per year) and bundled payments becoming more prevalent, labs must be equipped to drive increased speed, accuracy, and efficiency.
- Workforce in the Lab: As thousands of Boomers retire, the lab workforce will feel the impact – probably just as much or even more than other health sectors. According to the American Society for Clinical Pathology, lab professions are seeing an average vacancy rate of five to six percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that more than 40,000 lab jobs are currently vacant in the U.S. To compound the issue, experts predict that there will be both a shrinking workforce and many new jobs in medical and clinical technology over the next decade, which will only widen the labor shortage.
As a solution, hospitals and health systems need to look at strategic partnerships that work with the health system to help transform the way current labs perform. This will enable them to be more efficient and able to maximize the resources they do have (such as labor, supplies, blood, etc.), making them high-performing and able to serve and grow with their communities to meet the ever changing needs of their patient population.
Fellow lab guys and gals, listen up, “change is here, and more is coming.” Thankfully, we can change too.