News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel

News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
Sign In

In Canada, Shortage of Medical Laboratory Technologists and Radiology Technicians Continues to Delay Care

Insights learned from Canada’s experience may benefit clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups in the US as well

Canada continues to face a severe shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, especially among medical laboratory technologists (MLTs) and radiology technicians (RTs). According to the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS), “In 2010, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) identified that approximately half of all MLTs would be eligible to retire in 10 years, with the greatest impact felt in Canada’s rural and remote communities.” Today, “This staffing concern is currently affecting the professional community across all provinces and territories resulting in the decrease of workers, dramatically impacting organizations and their employees.”

One thing true of government-run healthcare programs is that they consistently underinvest in building new facilities, upgrading older facilities, and training/retaining enough physicians, nurses, and clinical laboratory/radiology workers. This is seen in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, where varies combinations of facility, physician, and other healthcare professional shortages generate regular headlines about patient wait times—particularly for elective procedures—that may be six months to a year or more.

For example, officials at Pasqua Hospital in Regina, which serves patients in southern Saskatchewan, Canada, say diagnostics services may need to be shut down by the end of January as a result of “extended, chronic staffing shortages.”

“We’re barely struggling to keep up with urgent cases,” Christy Labreche, a nuclear medicine technologist told the Regina-Leader Post, which noted that people requesting non-urgent treatment may need to make appointments six to 12 weeks out.  

More than 1,500 Saskatchewan residents have been waiting for more than 90 days for computerized tomography (CT) scans, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Pasqua Hospital leaders have asked province officials to take “immediate action,” but they feel their concerns are “falling on deaf ears,” the Leader Post reported.

Bashir Jalloh

“For over a decade, we have been sounding the alarm on behalf of our members that provide a vital service in the continuum of care,” said nuclear medicine technologist Bashir Jalloh (above) in a CUPE statement. Jalloh is President of CUPE 5430, Saskatchewan’s largest healthcare union which represents medical technologists in a variety of specialties. “Now, as waitlists grow, we are at risk of more disruptions of services and communities on bypass for critical care at a time when wait lists are as long as ever.” Clinical laboratory leaders in the US can gain valuable insights from the struggle with shortages taking place in Canada. (Photo copyright: Regina-Leader Post.)

MLT Needs Beyond Saskatchewan

The Canadian Alliance of Medical Laboratory Professionals Regulators (CAMLPR) is working with government authorities on the current and projected countrywide shortage of medical laboratory professionals.

In an article he penned for Today’s Clinical Lab, Adam Chrobak, BSc, MBA, MLT, Registrar/CEO of the College of Medical Laboratory Technologists of Manitoba, and Vice-Chair of the CAMLPR, noted that about 25,600 new medical laboratory jobs will open up by 2031. He pointed out, however, that only about 20,400 people (20% less than what is needed) are expected to pursue those lab jobs, according to employment data from Employment and Social Development Canada, an agency of the Canadian government.

Chrobak noted the following reasons for the deficit of MLTs in Canada:

  • An aging workforce: Many current lab scientists are over age 50, signaling a “potential shortage of medical laboratory technologists when seasoned professionals retire.”
  • Lack of awareness and representation: Other healthcare fields may benefit by being in the public spotlight, while “opportunities and rewards” of a medical lab technology career may not be apparent to job seekers.
  • Insufficient funding for educational programs: The need for laboratory professionals may supersede “scarce healthcare dollars that fund education programs.”
  • Barriers to registration: International applicants may be challenged in “recognition of existing field-of-practice competencies.”

Solutions: Improve Recruitment, Retention

To address the MLT shortages across Canada, CAMLPR aims to step up the registration of people interested in the medical laboratory profession through a project in partnership with the Canadian government called the Flexible Pathways to Registration for Medical Laboratory Technologists. The goal is to develop competency standards for entering the profession, ease the registration process, and increase the supply of qualified health professionals in Canada, according to a news release

This is not the first time Dark Daily has covered Canada’s lab worker shortages. 

In “Clinical Laboratories Suffer During the ‘Great Resignation’,” we reported how the so-called “Great Resignation” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on clinical laboratory staffs, creating shortages of pathologists as well as of medical technologists, medical laboratory technicians, and other lab scientists who are vital to clinical laboratories in both Canada and the US.

And in “Lab Staffing Shortages Reaching Dire Levels,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, noted that CAP Today characterized the current lab staffing shortage as going “from simmer to rolling boil” and that demand for medical technologists and other certified laboratory scientists far exceeds the available supply. Consequently, many labs use overtime and temp workers to handle daily testing, a strategy that has led to staff burnout and a high turnover rate.

Shortages in other areas of Canadian healthcare are on the rise as well, which we covered in “Number of Unfilled Medical Residencies Increases in Alberta and Other Areas of Canada.” We reported that, according to the Angus Reid Institute, approximately half of all Canadians cannot find a doctor or get a timely appointment with their current doctor. And that, just like in many parts of America, certain provinces are experiencing severe medical staffing shortages that includes clinical laboratories and pathology groups.

Global Insights May Offer Ideas  

Dark Daily’s coverage of healthcare industry challenges in Canada, the US, and other countries is aimed at helping clinical laboratory managers and pathologists understand challenges faced by government-run healthcare systems, where there is constant pressure on the government to provide adequate funding. Capital is needed to modernize and expand hospitals and clinics. At the same time, there is need to expand training opportunities to solve the shortage of clinical laboratory scientists, medical laboratory and imaging technologists, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.

The insights gained by studying these healthcare systems may be of value to US-based hospitals and medical laboratories that face their own worker recruitment and retention issues. 

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Pasqua Hospital Imaging Techs Say Shutdown Imminent Due to Staffing Shortfall

Critical Shortage of Radiological Technologists in Saskatchewan Risks Patient Care

Reduction of Lab and X-ray Services in La Ronge Due to Crisis in Staffing

Saskatchewan Announces $6.9 Billion Healthcare Budget for 2023-24

Solving the Shortage of Medical Laboratory Technologists in Canada

Flexible Pathways to Registration for Medical Laboratory Technologists

Clinical Laboratories Suffer During the ‘Great Resignation’

Lab Staffing Shortages Reaching Dire Levels

Number of Unfilled Medical Residencies Increases in Alberta and Other Areas of Canada

Canadian Province Solves Biopsy Backlog by Adding Staff and Calling on Pathologists to Help with ‘Gross Examination’ Stage of Biopsy Tests

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