There is a severe shortage of medical scientists in Irish laboratories, which means longer testing turnaround times for patients.The problem has been amplified by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with hospitals struggling to fill key posts, despite heavy advertising and promotion.
Chief medical scientist in microbiology at St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin, Abigail Salmon, said the stark nature of the lack of staff was apparent before the current crisis.
"In non-pandemic times, there is a recruitment crisis in medical lab science across the board. There are a lot of posts not filled. Prior to the pandemic, we were short five positions filled, as well as two maternity leave posts. It is not the hospital that is not filling these posts, we are trying to recruit and we just couldn’t fill them.
"There are not enough graduates going into the field. They aren’t staying in the profession, either going into medicine or academia, but not enough graduates to fill all the positions," she said.
According to the Medical Laboratory Scientists’ Association (MLSA), medical scientists usually work in hospital pathology laboratories, and are involved in the analysis of patient samples in order to detect disease and to monitor treatment prescribed by doctors.
It has been estimated that 70% of diagnoses by clinicians are made as a result of tests carried out by laboratory services. There are around 2,000 medical scientists employed in Ireland, working in public and private hospital laboratories, as well as laboratories in public health, private pathology, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD.
In 2019, the Academy of Clinical Science and Laboratory Medicine in conjunction with the MLSA revealed the staffing issue was at crisis levels.
"If there are insufficient scientists, then the turnaround time for laboratory tests will increase and patients will have to wait longer for results. This will in turn impact on treatment and management of patient’s illnesses. This is a national problem and across all specialties but is of particular concern in histopathology laboratories in Galway, Waterford and Dublin," the bodies said.
Histopathology is the study of changes in tissues caused by disease.
Laboratory medicine provides urgent and routine testing of patients’ samples in order to diagnose and monitor diseases and disorders in patients, the bodies said.
Pay is believed to be one of the key reasons that graduates are turning away from the profession and exploring options in other fields.New medical scientists emerging from a four-year degree earn less on the first point of the pay scale than a laboratory aide, who are support staff.
Biochemists are also thought to earn more than medical scientists, despite the work being similar and often overlapping.