A total of 272 valid responses was received. A provincial analysis of the survey showed that a total of 51% of respondents were working in Leinster (45% of the total respondents were in Dublin), 33% were in Munster, 15% were in Connaught and 1% were in Ulster. A total of 25% of respondents worked in small laboratories (consisting of fewer than 10 people), 43% worked in medium-sized laboratories of between 10 and 20 people) and 32% worked in large laboratories having more than 20 people. These laboratories included Health Service Executive (public) laboratories (59%), voluntary hospital (public) laboratories (29%), private hospitals and laboratories (11%) and the remaining 1% were in the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and working on the Maternal and Clinical Management System.
The proportion of respondents shown according to their scientific discipline (specialist) work area is provided in Fig. 1.
^Other (1%) denotes point of care and molecular genetics
Figure 1. Scientists working in Irish medical laboratories (n = 272) grouped according to specialist scientific discipline area
When asked to list their highest qualification, 69% of respondents had a Master’s level qualification or higher qualification in their field of work. These included Master’s degrees in areas of biomedical science (53%), a Fellowship from the Institute of Biomedical Science (10%), a PhD (4%); a smaller minority held a Master’s degree in business administration or a Diploma or Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (UK).
Regarding their job title some 45% of respondents were basic grade medical scientists, 28% were senior medical scientists, 10% were chief medical scientists and a further 3% were laboratory managers. Of the remaining 14%, approximately 4% were trainee medical scientists, 3% were specialist medical scientists, 2% were laboratory aides, 1% were senior or principal biochemists, 1% were clinical scientists; the remainder included quality managers and IT specialists.
Seventy-three percent of respondents were female, and taking the largest cohort of the respondents, which were the medical scientists, 77% of basic grade medical scientists were female, 80% of senior medical scientists were female, 57% of chief medical scientists were female and 55% of laboratory managers were female.
The length of time since respondents had qualified is shown in Fig. 2. The age-groups of these respondents were as follows: 18–24: 9.5%; 25–34: 28%; 35–44: 33%; 45–54: 19.5%; 55+: 10%, including 1% who were 65 + years old. Some 51% had spent fewer than 10 years in their current workplace, 34% between 10 and 19 years in their current workplace and the remaining 15% had spent 20 or more years in their current workplace.
A total of 7% of respondents said that they had taken up their current position as a direct result of the current pandemic.
A summary of changes to work practices in Irish medical laboratories is shown in Fig. 3. Over 48% of respondents reported that they have been working more hours since the onset of the pandemic. There was no significant difference in this regard between grades, i.e. basic grade compared to senior and managerial grades. Those working in multidisciplinary laboratories and biochemistry were found to work significantly more hours than those working in other laboratories including, notably clinical microbiology (clinical biochemistry/clinical microbiology: p < 0.04, multidisciplinary/clinical microbiology p < 0.002). The examination of core working hours saw 87% of respondents reporting a change to their core working hours. All respondents working in clinical biochemistry reported a change to core hours, significantly more than colleagues in clinical microbiology (p < 0.01), haematology (p < 0.04) and blood banking/transfusion medicine (p < 0.01). The majority of laboratories offer an out-of-hours service (on-call service), covering night-time and weekend hours. The survey found that 55% of respondents have seen a change in their participation in such rotas. The disciplines that saw the most significant changes were clinical microbiology, where significant changes were observed when compared to those working in haematology (p < 0.02), blood banking/transfusion medicine (p < 0.01) and clinical biochemistry (p < 0.05). Notably, there was a significant change in participation in out-of-hours participation for those working in multidisciplinary laboratories when compared to colleagues working in haematology (p < 0.04) and blood banking/transfusion medicine (p < 0.01).
Approximately 70% of respondents reported an increase in workload complexity. Over 85% of staff employed in a clinical microbiology setting reported an increase in workload complexity, significantly higher than seen in all other disciplines (p < 0.01). Most respondents (72%) reported that their work during the COVID-19 pandemic affected their work/life balance and there was no significant difference in this regard between disciplines.
A total of 54.5% of respondents found work to be more stressful since the current pandemic and 24% disagreed that this was the case. There was no significant difference between either grade or discipline in perception of stress, however.
Disruption Of Studies By Covid-19
A diversity of courses, including final qualifications for the degree in biomedical science being undertaken by trainees, MSc, PhD, trainer, management, leadership and continuing professional development-associated courses were disrupted by the pandemic, affecting 21% of respondents in total. Those respondents aged less than 25 years were the worst affected, with 47% stating that their studies had been disrupted. For those aged 25–34, 26.5% reported having their studies disrupted, for 35–44 year olds the figure was 18%, for 45–54 year olds the figure was 13% and in the case of those aged between 55 and 64 years, 9% reported having their studies disrupted.
Solidarity, pride, self-awareness as a profession and the sense of being appreciated by others in the service
When asked whether the pandemic had brought about more solidarity in their own laboratory, 64% agreed that it had, 19% of them agreeing strongly that solidarity had increased. There was no significant difference between grades of scientist, but notably there was a significantly heightened difference in the sense of solidarity in clinical microbiology laboratories compared to all the other types of laboratories, including multidisciplinary laboratories (all comparators with the clinical microbiology departments having a p-value < 0.02).
There was no significant difference between any one discipline and another’s level of pride in their response to the pandemic. In total 47.5% felt very proud and 39% felt proud of their laboratory’s response to the pandemic. There was no significant difference between any one discipline and any other; however, there was a very significant difference between senior medical scientists’ level of pride and that of lab chiefs/managers (whereby the latter were much more proud, p < .01) and between basic grade medical scientists’ and lab chiefs/managers’ level of pride (more significantly different again, having a p-value of < .001).
There was no significant difference between departments as to whether they feel more appreciated for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic; overall 5.5% of people agreed strongly with this statement and a further 37% agreed with it; however, there was a significant difference between chiefs and managers’ feelings of being appreciated versus senior medical scientists (p < .01) or basic grade medical scientists (p < .01). There was no significant difference in this regard between basic grade and senior medical scientists.
The survey asked an open-ended question of respondents about lessons that they have learned as a result of the pandemic. A total of 173 of those surveyed responded to this question and the answers were analysed and grouped using a realist thematic analysis approach and the most commonly encountered answers are illustrated in Fig. 4.
When asked whether COVID-19 had changed the way in which the respondents viewed their profession 47% said that it had and 18% disagreed that it had. There was no significant difference in the level of agreement with this statement either between disciplines or between different grades of scientist, however. The respondents’ views (166 respondents had commented on this question) on what improvements will be needed in the medical laboratory over the next decade are represented proportionally according to the frequency of statement in Fig. 5.