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Building Africa’s Laboratory Workforce Must Be Prioritised

The African Society of Laboratory Medicine (ASLM) is committed to raising the profile and importance of laboratory professionals on the African continent. During the ASLM2018 conference in December 2018 in Abuja, Nigeria, ASLM aims to put a spotlight on new initiatives and partnerships aimed at training, mentoring and certifying laboratory professionals across the continent.

Laboratory professionals play a vital role in the identification of diseases, ensuring the reliability of laboratory investigations and reporting laboratory findings to the clinical teams for timely and adequate patient management.

Admittedly, the only interaction that patients have with the laboratory is when their blood is drawn, or other specimens collected for testing. While the role of the laboratory professional cannot be over emphasised, unfortunately due to the public’s limited exposure to them, their value is often overlooked.

We cannot deny that medical laboratories are an essential part of disease detection, control, prevention and surveillance, as well as response to outbreaks. Unfortunately, most laboratories in Africa are not only poorly resourced but also stretched, liming their capacity to operate effectively. The lack of sufficient and qualified laboratory professionals in Africa is a great concern with long-term consequences.

For example, inadequate resources and limited diagnostic services compromise the quality of patient care due to misdiagnosis and consequent under/over treatment of the disease. This can have an economic and social impact on any country and the continent.

Investing in a robust, well-trained and dynamic laboratory workforce in Africa will facilitate the delivery of diagnostics services to over a billion African citizens, advancing universal health coverage and global health security.

The Coordinating Council for the Clinical Laboratory Workforce in the United States identified some of the challenges in the laboratory sector that hamper recruitment and retention efforts, which included a lack of visibility of the profession, low salary increases, poor wages compared with other healthcare professions and a lack of career advancement opportunities.  Unfortunately, Africa faces similar issues, on much larger scale and in the context of the disproportionate infectious disease burden on the continent.

To have a meaningful impact on this sector, the conversation about changing Africa’s laboratory workforce should involve educational institutions as much as laboratory leadership and governance. The magnitude of the current shortage of laboratory professionals and reasons for staff attrition are often not properly documented at the country level.

There are several questions that need to be addressed including is the demand of laboratory professionals equivalent to the number of biomedical graduates and are they being trained for new technologies and emerging service needs.

Perhaps there should be a discussion around roles and responsibilities of the various categories of the laboratory workforce, requirements for each role, scope of clinical laboratory workers and the key factors affecting the development of this workforce.

To address some of these issues, ASLM contributes to in-service and pre-service training initiatives, as well as raising awareness about the need to develop a harmonised framework for the certification of laboratory professionals. Fact of the matter is, increasing the number and improving the skills of the laboratory workforce on the continent is critical, especially as the need for technology driven health services continues to increase on the continent.

By ASLM Spokesperson: Dr Pascale Ondoa, Director of Science and New Initiatives

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