Histotechnologists ensure that human tissue samples are properly processed and prepared for prompt, accurate diagnoses. Their work happens behind the scenes, but a critical workforce shortage has drawn attention to its importance.
“The histotechnologist labor shortage is a national crisis,” said James Crawford, MD, Ph.D. and Senior Vice President of Laboratory Services at Northwell Health, a network of more than 77,000 collaborators, research pioneers, entrepreneurs and educators dedicated to improving healthcare. “It’s reached a tipping point, creating delays that could significantly impact diagnoses and patient care.”
An aging workforce is a dominant factor in the histotechnology labor shortage—more than half of histotechs are over 55—but the nature of the work is also causing retention issues and deterring new hires from joining the field.
According to the New York State Clinical Laboratory Association (NYSCLA), last year only 33 new histotechnologists were licensed in New York.
Addressing the crisis requires a better understanding of histotechnologists’ work. Here’s a closer look at some of the most pressing concerns:
Histotechnology is high pressure, relentless work
Histotechnology is notoriously complex, requiring precise skill and endurance to manually complete the series of steps required to process a biopsy for review. Adding to the stress of the job are aggressive quotas. Within a seven-hour shift, techs are often expected to process 200 tissue blocks and have strict schedules to hold them to it. Couriers come at assigned times to pick up slides and pathologists are at the ready to read them. There’s no room for delays.
“Histotechs are continually stressed over completing the number of blocks they are required to process in a shift,” said a practicing histotechnologist who asked to remain anonymous. “They are so heads down into the work that there’s no time for collaborating with other techs. It’s relentless, fast paced work and the potential for mishaps is significant.”
Quality control is critical
Not only is the work arduous and stressful, it’s riddled with the potential for errors— like mislabeling, making a wrong cut, incorrectly positioning or mounting a sample, folding a sample when removing it from a water bath, or mismatching a sample to a patient. These errors can have serious consequences, leading to repeat biopsies, delayed test results, and even contributing to a missed or inaccurate diagnosis.
“Without proper quality control, mistakes happen, no matter how skilled or dedicated the histotech,” said the practicing histotechnologist. “It’s easy to switch patients, cross contaminate or mix up samples that are arriving from multiple places. The stories we could tell are alarming, and yet not surprising considering the nature of the work.”
Despite the heavy workload, there’s fear of losing work to other labs
Demand on labs proliferates as the population ages and as physicians order more diagnostic tests in response to learnings about preventative care. Hiring from a shrinking talent pool and retaining existing staff add to the challenge.
“Labs offer competitive salaries to win talent and it’s not uncommon for techs to take on multiple jobs, working per diem or part time in addition to full-time positions, but there are still gaps to fill,” said the histotechnologist.
When the workload becomes too much to handle, labs recognize the need for quick turnaround to ensure patient care and are forced to ship their slides to competing labs for processing. Business is lost.
Will labs embrace technology to help?
The current histotechnologist workforce crisis has escalated the need for technology to provide relief. Automating the work and providing AI-guided diagnostics can alleviate pressure and make work for histotechnologists more fulfilling so others are compelled to join the profession. It can also increase the accuracy of their work, improving diagnosis.
While humans may fear that powerful technology like AI can steal their jobs, the reality is that it can free and empower them to take on more strategic, cognitive work to enhance patient care.
Modernizing Histotechnology Labs with SectionStar
Histotechnology labs are ripe for modernization that could improve processes, creating efficiencies that lead to more fulfilling work for technicians and more accurate diagnoses for patients.
Clarapath SectionStar, a medical robotics platform mimicking the human histotechnician, addresses the crisis in histotechnology by modernizing the lab and the work of histotechnologists. Automating nine histology processing steps, the device standardizes lab operations, improving slide accuracy and consistency, creating efficiencies, and reducing errors.
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