Medical Labs in Israel’s Health System Face Severe Worker Shortage

Many staffers will retire in next few years. But low public-sector salaries push graduates to join private firms.

Eyal Toueg

Israel’s health system in the next few years will be facing a severe shortage of medical-lab workers, as many current staffers retire, the latest human-resources report from the Health Ministry says.

Close to half of Israel’s lab workers - who do everything from routine blood, urine and stool tests to tests for malignant tumors, genetic mapping and monitoring epidemics - are 55 or older, and not enough younger workers will be available to replace them, the report says.

Industry observers say a critical factor in future staffing in the public-sector labs is salaries, which remain well below those in the private sector.

“You can’t do real, effective medicine today without experts in the medical labs,” said Reuven Or, director of the Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cancer Immunotherapy at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.

“As medicine gets more advanced, the dependence on medical-lab analysis increases.”

The report, which relates to 2013, shows that of nearly 8,600 lab workers in the health system, 2,000, or 23 percent, are 65 or older, 2,200, or 26 percent, are ages 55 to 65, and just 7 percent are under 30.

Nearly 7 out of 8 lab workers are women.

Critical as it is, medical-lab work has become less attractive because salaries are relatively low. The Israel Association of Microbiologists and Biochemists says graduates with degrees in life sciences prefer to work for private pharmaceutical companies.

While pharmaceuticals might sound more cutting-edge, working in a modern medical lab is professionally challenging, insists Esther Admon, the general secretary of the group, which represents medical- and scientific-lab workers.

“During the past 15 years, there has been a revolution in the lab professions,” she said. “Today, labs must meet strict international standards of reliability, quality control and research.”

Nearly all lab workers today have academic degrees, from bachelor’s degrees to professorships, and come from the fields of life sciences, natural sciences and medicine.

“This is work that requires you to always be studying and keeping current, and to adjust to developments and to an international standard,” Admon explained.

“Workers are continually required to develop updated testing methods, efficient methods of quality control, and reliability tests. When a new epidemic breaks out, like bird flu, we stand on guard and develop an appropriate testing array.

“The problem is that while from a professional perspective the profession has developed a great deal, in terms of salary levels and employment conditions it remains several years behind,” Admon said.

“The last wage agreement between the lab workers and the treasury was 20 years ago, in 1995.”

Doctorate plus experience = $8.80 an hour

Today, she said, a lab worker with a doctorate and eight years’ seniority gets 34 shekels ($8.80) an hour, like a hospital orderly.

“The erosion of conditions isn’t just unfair to the workers,” she says. “It has seriously undermined the attractiveness of the profession, and today there is no young generation entering. Most of them prefer to work in private labs or in high tech.”

Admon said that with half the workforce aged 55 or older, the labs are facing a crisis.

“We live in an age where lab tests are a central facet of treatment and of preventive medicine,” she said.

“A person admitted to an emergency room today gets three to four samples taken at the first stage, so that the pressure on hospital emergency rooms manifests itself many times over in the labs. Lab tests have become a widely used tool without the positions and salaries being updated accordingly.”

To work in a medical lab in a hospital or other health facility, a bio-analyst needs a B.Sc. degree and a half-year internship and must pass tests, the union says.

The union says the base salary is just 2,500 shekels a month. While a monthly salary is supplemented to reach the minimum wage, the base is used to calculate advancement in the ranks. So during a worker’s first years, the base salary often remains below the minimum wage.

Yevgeny Stoyanov, director of the endocrinology lab at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, has a doctorate in genetics and a master’s degree in pharmacology.

“I bring home 8,000 shekels ($2,000) a month [after taxes,] and that’s because I do extra shifts,” he said. “Without the shifts, my salary would be much lower.

“And I’m lucky because we have labs that have no shifts, and [there] they earn only 5,000 shekels, which is minimum wage.

“If I would go to the private sector, I could earn at least three times as much. But I’m here because of the satisfaction. I’m here to save lives.”

Imad Hakim, who is responsible for quality control at the blood-bank lab at Hadassah, has 21 years if experience. He nets 8,500 shekels.

“From my perspective, I see how the pressure on the labs is increasing,” he said. “Today, six people are doing the work of eight, and the pressure is growing. We have to give 140 to 160 percent to maintain the same output.”

What’s more, the work carries a higher risk of infecting its workers. Statistics show that the rate of cancer among medical-lab workers is higher than it is among the general population.

“In 2005 laboratory work was recognized as a high-risk profession, since lab workers are exposed to patients’ body fluids and work with dangerous biological materials,” the lab association’s Admon said.

“They established a committee to check this, and the committee recommended that lab workers undergo periodic testing. But these recommendations were never implemented, nor are lab workers compensated for the risk inherent in their work.”