Clinical Laboratory and Pathology Leaders in Canada Gather to Assess New Diagnostic Technologies and Respond to the Acute Shortage of Medical Technologists
There was cautious optimism about the ability of Canada’s medical laboratories to innovate in ways that advance patient care, while recognizing the ongoing challenge of adequate lab staffing and budget constraints
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA—This week, more than 150 leaders representing clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology labs, in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies, and provincial health officials gathered for the first “Canadian Diagnostic Executive Forum” (CDEF) since 2019. It would be apt to say that the speakers objectively addressed all the good, the bad, and the ugly of Canada’s healthcare system and its utilization of medical laboratory testing services.
Over the two days of the conference, speakers and attendees alike concurred that the two biggest issues confronting clinical laboratories in Canada were inadequate staffing and an unpredictable supply chain. There also was agreement that the steady increase in prices, fueled by inflation, is exacerbating continuing cost increases in both lab salaries and lab supplies.
Canada’s Health System Has Several Unique Attributes
Canada’s healthcare system has two unique attributes that differentiate it from those of other nations. First, healthcare is mandated by a federal law, but generally each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories operates its own health plan. Thus, the health system in each province and territory may cover a different mix of clinical services, therapeutic drugs, and medical procedures. The federal government typically pays 40% of a province’s health costs and the province funds the balance.
Second, it is a fact that 90% of the Canadian population lives within 150 miles of the United States border. Yet there are provinces with large populations that have geography that ranges from the US border to north of the Arctic Circle. These provinces have a major challenge to ensure equal access to healthcare regardless of where their citizens live.
During day one of the conference, several presentations addressed innovations that supported those labs’ efforts to deliver value and timely insights during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a lab team in Alberta launched a research study involving SARS-CoV-2 virus surveillance from the earliest days of the outbreak. This study was presented by Mathew Diggle, PhD, FRCPath, Associate Professor and Program Lead for the Public Health Laboratory (ProvLab) Medical-Scientific Staff at Alberta Precision Laboratories in Edmonton, Alberta.
Study Designed to Identify Coinfections with COVID-19
While performing tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests from the onset of the pandemic, and identifying the emergence of variants, the ProvLab team also tracked co-infection involving other respiratory viruses.
“This is one of the largest eCoV [endemic coronavirus] studies performed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Diggle said. “This broad testing approach helped to address a pivotal diagnostic gap amidst the emergence of a novel pathogen: cross-reactivity with other human coronaviruses that can cause similar clinical presentations. This broad surveillance enabled an investigation of cross-reactivity of a novel pathogen with other respiratory pathogens that can cause similar clinical presentations.
“Fewer than 0.01% of specimens tested positive for both SARS-CoV-2 and an eCoV,” he explained. “This suggested no significant cross-reactivity between SARS-CoV-2 and eCoVs on either test and provided a SARS-CoV-2 negative predictive value over 99% from an eCoV-positive specimen … The data we collected was highly compelling and the conclusion was that there was no coinfection.”
Chairing the two days of presentations at this weeks’ Canadian Diagnostic Executive Forum was Kevin D. Orr (above), Senior Director of Hospital Business at In-Common Laboratories. He also served on the program for this national conference serving clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology labs, and in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies throughout Canada. This was the first gathering of this conference since 2019. Attendees were enthusiastic about the future of medical laboratory services in Canada, despite lab staffing shortages and rising costs due to inflation. (Photo copyright The Dark Report.)
Clinical Laboratory Regionalization in Quebec
One of Canada’s largest projects to regionalize and harmonize clinical laboratory services is proceeding in Quebec. Leading this effort is Ralph Dadoun, PhD, Project Director for OPTILAB Montreal, which is part of the Ministry of Health and Social Services in Quebec. The ambitious goal for this project is to move the 123 clinical laboratories within the province into 12 clusters. Initial planning was begun in 2013, so this project is in its ninth year of implementation.
During his presentation, Dadoun explained that the work underway in the 12 clusters involves creating common factors in these categories:
- Uniform test names.
- Common test codes, labels, test reporting format.
- Common abbreviations.
- Uniform quality indicators (e.g., nonconformities, specimen acceptability, etc.).
- Implementation consistent with and respecting ISO-15189 criteria.
Another notable achievement in Quebec is the progress made to implement a common laboratory information system (LIS) within all 12 clusters. The first three laboratory clusters are undergoing their LIS conversions to the same platform during the next 180 days. The expectation is that use of a common LIS across all clinical laboratory sites in Quebec will unlock benefits in a wide spectrum of lab activities and work processes.
The 2022 CDEF featured speakers from most of the provinces. The common themes in these presentations were the shortage of lab personnel across all technical positions, disruptions in lab supplies, and the need to support the usual spectrum of lab testing services even as lab budgets are getting squeezed.
At the same time, there was plenty of optimism. Presentations involving adoption of digital pathology, advances in early disease detection made possible by new diagnostic technologies, and the expansion of precision medicine showed that clinical laboratories in Canada are gaining tools that will allow them to contribute to better patient care while helping reduce the downstream costs of care.
The Canadian Diagnostics Executive Forum is organized by a team from In-Common Laboratories in North York, Toronto, Ontario. Founded in 1967, it is a private, not-for-profit company that works with public hospitals and laboratory medicine providers. Information about CDEF can be found at its website, where several of this year’s presentations will be available for viewing.
—Robert L. Michel