Physicians in Saskatchewan called for changes after wait times for anatomic pathology test results reached six weeks or more

Anatomic pathologist and histopathologist shortages have plagued the single-payer healthcare systems in Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) in recent years. The consequence is increased wait times for physicians in both countries to receive medical laboratory test results, which increases wait times across the entire healthcare continuum.

However, one Canadian province significantly reduced a backlog that had pushed wait times for surgical pathology test results to six weeks or more. It did this by having its pathologists perform first-stage examinations normally completed by pathology assistants or medical technologists.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) announced in October it had cleared nearly half of the 2,600-plus biopsies that were waiting to be processed at hospital labs in Regina and Saskatoon, the Regina Leader-Post reported.

“I think we’ve been making amazing progress in the work,” Lenore Howey, Executive Director of Laboratory Services at SHA, told the newspaper. “It’s always good to take time to know and understand your process, so that we can put the right resources in the right places.”

Getting Anatomic Pathologists Involved

Howey stated the SHA cleared cases by having pathologists “assist with the work in the first phase”—or gross examination stage—of a biopsy. This is the part of the process during which pathology assistants or medical laboratory technologists typically record the size, weight, and description of a specimen and look for pathological changes.

In addition, the SHA hired an additional pathologist assistant and three histology/cytology technologists—one on a permanent basis and two on a temporary basis. Other improvements include:

  • Working toward resolving problems with voice recognition transcription software being piloted in Regina for the gross examination phase of processing; and;
  • Implementing an electronic specimen tracking system in Saskatoon, which eventually also may be used in Regina.

Physicians Express Dissatisfaction with Wait Times

Physicians attending the Saskatchewan Medical Association’s Spring Representative Assembly in May raised the backlog issue with Health Minister Jim Reiter, complaining about the impact on patient care. At that point, the backlog of pathology cases had hit 1,662 in Regina, while Saskatoon’s caseload totaled 1,005. Many of these biopsies involve cancer patients, thus delaying a diagnosis and the start of an appropriate treatment for these patients.

“I’m trying to get things done as expeditiously as possible,” urologist Francisco Garcia, MD, told the Leader-Post, “but for the first five or six weeks, I’m handcuffed in terms of what I’m able to do.”

Now, thanks to SHA’s efforts, as of Oct. 2 specimens in progress dropped to 785 in Regina and 748 in Saskatoon. Both numbers are within range of SHA’s target of 750.

“We do not have a backlog right now,” Lenore Howey, Executive Director of Laboratory Services at SHA, told the Leader-Post. “Our system is very stable, but we do have checks and balances to put in place so that we would never get there again, which we didn’t have prior.” (Photo copyright: Saskatchewan Health Authority.)

Wait Times Impacting Patient Care Worldwide

While Saskatchewan appears to have solved its most recent pathology reporting issue, this is not the first time the province has dealt with delays in lab testing reports. In 2011, Dark Daily reported on lengthy turnaround times for anatomic pathology test reports that averaged more than 12 days, which was blamed on shortage of pathologists dating back to 2001. (See, “Pathologist Shortage and Delays in Lab Test Reports Get Publicity in Saskatchewan,” August 15, 2011.)

And in October, Dark Daily reported that cancer patients in the UK are experiencing record waiting times for treatments, with more than 3,000 people waiting longer than two months to begin care, iNews reported. Delays there are being blamed in part on severe shortages of pathology staff. A 2017 workforce survey by the Royal College of Pathologists reported that only 3% of the National Health Service (NHS) histopathology departments responding to the survey had adequate staff. (See, “Shortage of Histopathologists in the United Kingdom Now Contributing to Record-Long Cancer-Treatment Waiting Times in England,” October 31, 2018.)

“Making sure pathology services can cope with current and future demand is essential if we are to ensure early diagnosis and improve outcomes for patients,” Jo Martin, PhD, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, told the BBC.

Increased workloads due to new NHS screening programs and an approaching retirement crisis—a quarter of all histopathologists in the UK are aged 55 or over—has caused the Royal College of Pathologists to call for more funded training places, better IT systems, and further investment in pathology services.

While the US healthcare system is not currently experiencing a shortage of clinical laboratory staff or anatomic pathologists, shortages in other countries illustrate the impact any delay in reporting results can have on patient care.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Backlog of Pathology Tests Cleared in Province

Technology and Staff Shortages Contribute to Biopsy Backlog

Pathology Staff Shortages Causing Delays to Cancer Diagnosis, Says Report

Cancer Waiting Times at their Worst Ever Level

Histopathology Workforce Survey 2018

Pathologists Shortage ‘Delaying Cancer Diagnosis’

Pathologists Shortage and Delays in Lab Test Reports Get Publicity in Saskatchewan

Shortage of Histopathologists in the United Kingdom Now Contributing to Record-Long Cancer-Treatment Waiting Times in England