Canada doesn’t have enough medical laboratory technologists to meet the growing demands of our health-care system, and the problem is getting worse, the profession’s association warned Tuesday.
“We have reached the point now where some laboratories have been closed for weeks due to insufficient staffing, which is a cascading problem for patients and the health-care system,” said Maria Klement, president of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science.
“Some hospitals are considering whether they can keep their doors open in the absence of on-site laboratory services.”
Medical laboratory technologists perform blood tests, do biopsies, and examine fluid or tissue samples to detect disease and infection. They might be looking for things like whether a lump is breast cancer, determining a blood type, or testing a throat swab for strep throat.
About 1.2-million laboratory tests are performed in Canada every day, according to the CSMLS.
Without laboratory capabilities, hospitals and clinics are forced to decide whether to treat people on-site, or send them somewhere where all their tests can be done, Klement said. Rural areas are particularly stretched, she thinks.
Klement said there aren’t enough lab technologists to deal with growing demands and increasingly complex tests, and many people are set to leave the profession.
“About half of all medical laboratory technologists will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years,” she said. “Shortages are already being felt in communities across Canada and the new supply of graduates will not be enough to offset retirements in virtually every province and territory.”
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Lab tests are vital to medicine in Canada — from diagnosis to figuring out whether a treatment is working, said Peter Bridge, chair of medical laboratory sciences at the Michener Institute of Education in Toronto, a program that trains laboratory technologists.
Without tests, he said, “The doctors would be left working out their diagnoses somewhat in the dark.”
“The medical laboratory technologists are the third largest workforce in the medical system, and yet the general public, for the most part, has not heard about them,” he said.
“They go to see their doctor or if they’re in hospital they may see nurses, but as far as what happens to tubes of blood that are collected from them, they just think it goes into a black box. They don’t realize the number of individuals required to do those tests, the type of training that they need, the type of equipment that they need.”
To fill the gap, the society said, they need about 400 new people each year for the next 10 years. The CSMLS has about 14,000 members across Canada right now, Klement said.
While lots of students apply to his program, one of 25 in the country, Bridge said one of the biggest bottlenecks is the amount of on-the-job training required.
With lots of technologists retiring, they don’t have much time to train students, he said. “You cannot teach if you don’t have teachers, and the teachers are retiring rapidly.”
The CSMLS is hoping to make it easier for people to enter the profession by creating programs to bridge internationally trained lab technologists into the Canadian system, giving them the additional training needed to be able to work in Canada.
They’re also considering things like more virtual reality or simulations to get around the on-site training bottleneck, Klement said. “It could be like taking blood from a rubber arm instead of from a real arm.”
“We know workers in the health sector do very important work, and we will work closely with employers and partners to make sure they have the skills and training they need to find and keep good jobs,” said Véronique Simard, spokesperson for federal employment minister Patty Hajdu.
Waiting for medical test results is a stressful experience for a patient, Klement said. “When you’re not feeling well, ‘is it cancer? Is it leukemia? Is it this or that?’ Your mind always goes to the worst-case scenario.”
While they’ll make sure that all vital tests get done, she doesn’t want people to be waiting around for routine checks either.
“Bottom line, there is a patient at the other end that we want to make sure we take care of.”