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Outside the Lab Profession

Pathology Under Pressure: Unraveling the Exodus

Photographed by Carva

Over a decade ago, the biomedical science industry in the UK experienced significant restructuring, particularly in pathology services, leading to widespread uncertainty among healthcare professionals. The pressures faced by the National Health Service (NHS) compounded these concerns, with many fearing for their job security. Numerous senior leaders in pathology opted for voluntary redundancy, exacerbating the challenges in workforce development, training, and talent retention. 

Today, the pathology field continues to grapple with these issues, exacerbated by the complexities of training during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article aims to explore the factors driving the exodus of pathologists, assess the implications of this trend, and propose potential solutions to address these challenges.

Why is this happening?

Restructuring and uncertainty. The rigorous restructuring and consolidation of pathology services, which occurred over a decade ago, instilled a sense of uncertainty within the profession. It involved mergers of pathology departments, centralization of services, and changes in organizational structures. Many pathologists faced uncertainty about their roles, responsibilities, and job security. The prospect of potential redundancies and changes in work dynamics led some to reassess their career paths and seek opportunities elsewhere. Economic pressures on the NHS and healthcare organizations have contributed to job insecurity among pathologists. Budget constraints, funding cuts, and financial pressures on healthcare systems have led to concerns about job stability. In such environments, pathologists feel uncertain about their prospects within their current roles, prompting them to explore alternative career options or consider early retirement. The perception of job insecurity can also erode morale and contribute to a sense of disillusionment.

Lack of preparedness among graduates. Many graduates entering the pathology workforce may not be adequately prepared for the demands of the profession. Though academic programs provide a solid theoretical foundation, they may not sufficiently equip graduates with the practical skills and hands-on experience necessary for real-world practice. As a result, newly graduated pathologists face challenges in adapting to the complexities of clinical settings, interpreting diagnostic tests accurately, and effectively managing workload pressures. The disconnect between academic training and workplace expectations can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and frustration among new graduates, potentially leading to attrition from the profession.

Challenges in training and preceptorship. Training on the job has become increasingly challenging, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and in its aftermath. The pandemic placed unprecedented strain on healthcare systems, with resources and personnel stretched thin. In such circumstances, providing comprehensive training and mentorship for new pathologists became more difficult. Additionally, traditional preceptorship models, which rely on close supervision and mentorship from experienced pathologists, may have faced disruptions or limitations caused by social distancing measures, remote work arrangements, and resource constraints. As a result, new pathologists may have encountered barriers to receiving the guidance and support needed to develop their skills and competencies effectively. The lack of structured training opportunities and mentorship can hinder career progression and contribute to dissatisfaction among early-career pathologists.

What is the impact?

Workforce shortages. The exodus of experienced pathologists exacerbates existing workforce shortages, leading to increased workload and strain on remaining staff.

Less than optimal patient care. Shortages and turnover in the pathology workforce can impact patient care, leading to delays in diagnoses, potential errors, and compromised quality of care.

Knowledge loss. The departure of senior pathologists results in the loss of valuable expertise and institutional knowledge, hindering the development of junior staff and future generations of pathologists.

Strains on training programs. The shortage of experienced pathologists poses challenges for training programs, affecting the quality and effectiveness of education and mentorship for new graduates.

How to fix it?

Enhanced recruitment strategies. Healthcare organizations should implement targeted recruitment strategies to attract and retain talented pathologists, including offering competitive salaries, benefits, and professional development opportunities.

Revitalized training programs. Investing in comprehensive training programs that combine academic coursework with hands-on clinical experience can better prepare graduates for the realities of the pathology profession.

Strengthened preceptorship models. Organizations should reevaluate and strengthen preceptorship programs to provide structured mentorship and support for new pathologists, facilitating their transition into the workforce.

Support for work-life balance: To recognize the importance of work-life balance in retaining talent, healthcare organizations should implement policies and practices that promote employee well-being and job satisfaction.

Professional bodies, regulatory bodies, and educational institutions play a critical role in addressing the factors contributing to the exodus of pathologists, particularly concerning the lack of preparedness among graduates and challenges in training and preceptorship. 

When it comes to lack of preparedness, professional bodies and educational institutions can collaborate to review and update the curriculum to ensure alignment with current industry standards and practice requirements. This action may involve incorporating more practical, hands-on experiences, such as clinical rotations or internships, into the curriculum. 

Establishing standardized competency assessments can also help ensure that graduates possess the necessary skills and competencies for entry-level pathology positions. Here, professional bodies can develop frameworks for assessing skills such as laboratory techniques, diagnostic interpretation, and critical thinking. Meanwhile, professional bodies can provide opportunities for continuing education and training to support ongoing professional development among graduates. For example, workshops, seminars, online courses, and mentorship programs aimed at bridging the gap between academic learning and real-world practice can all contribute.

From a regulatory standpoint, developing guidelines and best practices for effective preceptorship and training programs in pathology is important. These guidelines can outline expectations for preceptors, define the scope of preceptorship, and recommend strategies for optimizing the learning experience for trainees. Educational institutions and regulatory bodies can facilitate collaboration and networking opportunities between pathology training programs and healthcare organizations; for example, creating platforms for sharing best practices, fostering mentorship relationships, and facilitating placements or internships in clinical settings. Finally, regulatory bodies can advocate for adequate resources and support to enhance training and preceptorship programs in pathology; for example, securing funding for mentorship stipends, developing infrastructure for virtual learning and tele-mentoring, and advocating for policies that prioritize education and training within healthcare organizations.

By taking proactive measures, professional bodies, regulatory bodies, and educational institutions can all help ensure that the pathology workforce is adequately prepared, supported, and equipped to meet the evolving needs of the healthcare system. Through collaboration and collective action, they can contribute to the retention and development of talent within the pathology profession.

The exodus of pathologists presents significant challenges for the pathology workforce, with implications for patient care and health care delivery. By understanding the factors driving this trend and implementing targeted solutions, healthcare organizations can mitigate workforce shortages, enhance training and mentorship opportunities, and ultimately ensure the continued delivery of high-quality pathology services. It is imperative that stakeholders collaborate to address these challenges and cultivate a thriving and sustainable pathology workforce for the future.

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About the Author
Bamidele Farinre

Pathology Quality Manager/Governance Lead (Chartered Scientist), NHS, UK


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