Measuring the mood in the laboratory sector: materials bottlenecks and staff shortages

Increased materials consumption and the limited availability of liquid handling materials – pipettes, gloves and other items required for blood samples and coronavirus tests – are currently presenting difficulties for laboratory technicians throughout Europe

These are the findings of a recent survey of laboratory workers in Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Italy and France conducted by Starlab International.

The company spoke to around 230 Laboratory employees, managers and buyers about the current situation in their laboratories and supplies of liquid handling materials. The respondents expect another difficult year in 2021 owing to personnel shortages and supply bottlenecks.

The increased demand for materials resulting from the coronavirus crisis is not only affecting medical laboratories engaged in the evaluation of tests and development of vaccines. Other laboratories, too, are increasingly complaining of a lack of materials in the liquid handling field.

A total of 44% of laboratory staff surveyed across Europe report that their material supplies are currently arriving late or not at all. In Germany the figure was more than 60%.

“We are currently seeing a tense situation in all laboratories. The shortages are not only impacting hospitals and diagnostic laboratories responsible for combating the coronavirus crisis,” said Klaus Ambos, Managing Director of Starlab International. “This has been confirmed by another up to date survey among our European sales managers.”

Although the vaccines that have been approved offer hope that the situation will soon begin to ease, the majority of laboratory workers surveyed expect 2021 to be another year of tension with the possibility of a further increase in demand for liquid handling materials.

Some 26% of respondents anticipate an increase of around 25%, with 8% predicting a rise of more than 50%. A total of 56% expect demand to remain at the current high level.

As a consequence, suppliers such as Starlab are already seeing effects similar to those in the retail sector: customers are stockpiling materials to safeguard future operations.

Around one third of the laboratories surveyed had stocked up with materials in recent months, whereas 42% intend to build their material inventories with a view to future peaks.

Uneven materials distribution weighing on other research laboratories

Almost 50% of those surveyed have the feeling that liquid handling materials are currently harder to obtain because supplies to medical laboratories are being prioritised.

Dependent on the metric applied, Germany currently has between 1700–2,500 laboratories working in the fields of food, environmental and medical analytics.

Meanwhile, in the entire country, there are barely 170 COVID laboratories processing around 100,000 tests each week, accounting for less than 10% of the total.

The challenge lies in the fact that given the dramatic increase in cases of coronavirus, these laboratories are experiencing a huge demand for materials that they expect their suppliers to provide.

“Many laboratory equipment suppliers are in a dilemma. Just because public and societal pressure is being driven higher by COVID-19, this does not mean that other areas of medicine should be allowed to suffer. So we are endeavoring to balance the availability of material supplies,” explained Klaus Ambos.

Digitalisation counters staff shortages

Alongside the potential supply bottlenecks cited by the majority – 56% – of laboratory employees surveyed as their greatest challenge, the shortage of specialist staff is also coming under the spotlight.

Around 30% of respondents see this as one of the greatest challenges for the sector in 2021. Although the coronavirus is intensifying the staffing crisis, it had already existed before the pandemic, as Klaus Ambos knows: “The shortage of qualified laboratory staff has been a problem in the sector for some time."

"And as in other areas, it is now being magnified by the coronavirus crisis.” New trends in digitalisation are in a position to offer some relief.

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS), for example, digitise and simplify processes such as the documentation of samples and can be integrated with overall laboratory management.

“Digitalisation has the potential to make a career in the laboratory attractive once again to the younger generation, because it puts the emphasis back on actual research work,” said Klaus Ambos.

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