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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Four Thousand New Zealand Medical Laboratory Scientists and Technicians Threatened to Strike over Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions

Last-minute court injunction stopped a mass walkout, but allied health workers continue to push country’s District Health Boards for improvements

In New Zealand, the unprecedented surge in PCR COVID-19 testing due to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant appears to have pushed the country’s 10,000 healthcare workers—including 4,000 medical laboratory scientists and technicians—to the breaking point.

On March 3, just 24 hours before the first of two walkouts was scheduled to begin, New Zealand’s Employment Court banned the strike that would have shut down medical laboratories in the country’s mixed public-private healthcare system. Medical laboratory workers make up 40% of the nation’s 10,000 healthcare workers who planned the nationwide strike to protest low pay and poor working conditions, according to 1News.

“COVID was the perfect storm for the profile of laboratories and how undervalued they have been for far too long,” said medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS).

Judge Issues Injunction Restraining the Strike

New Zealand’s Public Service Association (PSA) is the country’s largest trade union representing more than 80,000 workers across government, state-owned enterprises, local councils, health boards, and community groups.

The PSA’s 10,000 health workers (which includes 4,000 medical laboratory workers) had planned to strike on March 4-5 and March 18-19, but, according to the New Zealand Herald the Employment Court stopped the walkouts due to the rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

The Herald noted, however, that PSA union members in Auckland had already postponed their walkout after county District Health Boards (DHB) expressed concern over patient safety.

“Striking has always been our last resort, and our members in Auckland continue to demonstrate their commitment to providing quality healthcare to New Zealanders by working tomorrow,” PSA Organizer Will Matthews told the Herald.

He insisted, however, that DHBs need to respond to workers’ concerns. “The depth of feeling from our members, and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” Matthews told 1News. “We are now in a position where strike action is our only remaining option to get the DHBs and the government to listen.”

Terry Taylor
In an interview with Stuff, medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor (above), president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science, acknowledged laboratory workers’ commitment to doing the work, but he is concerned about the next big testing surge. “Goodwill only goes a certain distance in the end when people are knackered and not getting what they need. At the moment, we have the capability to do 50,000 to 60,000 [tests] per day throughout the whole country, but we couldn’t run that for more than a week. We’d be dead, we’d be overrun,” he said. Clinical laboratory leaders in this country may want to make note of Taylor’s concerns, as laboratory conditions in this country become stressed as well. (Photo copyright: Newshub.)

Clinical Laboratory Workers Claim Low Wages, Poor Conditions, Irrelevant Testing

While no new strike dates have been set, Matthews said striking workers would include contact tracers and laboratory staff as well as nearly 70 other groups of healthcare workers, many of whom “don’t even earn a living wage.” According to Peoples Dispatch, allied health workers are working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2020.

The starting salary for a DHB medical laboratory scientist after completing a four-year degree is NZ$56,773 (US$39,519), while lab assistants and technicians start out at less than NZ$50,000 (US$34,804), Stuff reported.

In an interview with 1News, Taylor maintained that diagnostic labs in New Zealand have long been understaffed, undervalued, and their workers poorly treated. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has exacerbated an ongoing problem. Issues such as space constraints, for example, have become even more problematic.

“We’ve got extra machinery that’s come into the labs, we don’t get any more space, all these consumables sitting all over hallways and corridors, extra staff coming in to do the stuff,” Taylor told RNZ. “So, we’ve lost all our tearooms, we’ve lost all our office space, our conditions are markedly less than they should be.”

1News points out that the country’s medical laboratory scientists and technicians are processing more than 20,000 PCR COVID-19 tests per day in addition to running 120,000 other samples and 200,000 diagnostic tests. At the end of March 2020, the average number of COVID-19 tests processed per day was 1,777.

While New Zealand has preached to its citizens the need for widespread PCR testing, Taylor argued in February 2022 that the country must change its approach to offering PCR testing only to symptomatic individuals and close contacts.

“To run our diagnostic laboratories into the ground with endless irrelevant testing is a direct reflection of poor foresight, planning, and respect for the role of this critical health workforce,” Taylor told Newshub.

Necessity of Rewarding All Medical Laboratory Personnel

Medical laboratory scientist Bryan Raill is president of Apex, a specialist union of allied, scientific and technical employees. Raill told 1News the long-term solution is for the government to address pay equity, staffing levels, and worker wellbeing in the country’s historically undervalued medical laboratories.

“Medical laboratory scientists and technicians have to be fairly rewarded for the training, skill, and expertise they bring to the health system,” Raill said. “Medical laboratory scientists need a timely, fair, and equitable process to determine their worth.”

While the stresses on New Zealand medical laboratory workers are not identical, US clinical laboratory leaders will want to monitor the lengths to which New Zealand’s laboratory workers are willing to go to force improvements in their working conditions, staffing, and pay.

As the noted above, the government-funded health system is continually strapped for funds. Consequently, the health districts often defer capital investment in hospitals and medical laboratories. That is one reason why lab staff can find themselves working in space that is inadequate for the volume of specimens which need to be tested daily.

Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Why the ‘Hidden Heroes’ of Our COVID-19 Response Are Striking

COVID-19 Omicron Outbreak: Health Strike Postponed after Employment Court Grants Injunction

New Zealand Employment Court Passes Injunction to Scuttle Health Workers’ Strike

10,000 Health Workers Strike as Omicron Wave Hits

After almost Six Million Tests, an Omicron Explosion Will Heap More Stress on Exhausted Laboratory Workers

Burnt Out Laboratory Staff Working in Poor Conditions, Institute Says

COVID-19: PCR Testing Reaches ‘Crisis’ Point, Public Health and Lab Staff Plea for Symptomatic Testing Only

Pathology Laboratory Consolidation May Leave New Zealand Holiday Destinations with Limited COVID-19 Testing Capacity as Omicron Variant Arrives

Pathology Laboratory Consolidation May Leave New Zealand Holiday Destinations with Limited COVID-19 Testing Capacity as Omicron Variant Arrives

Due to the national health system’s aggressive cost-cutting measures over the past 20 years, some regions of the island country now have only limited local medical laboratory services

It was in the early 2000s when different district health boards throughout New Zealand decided on a strategy of issuing sole source, multi-year medical laboratory testing contracts in their regions to cut lab test testing costs. Consequently, pathology laboratories that lost their bidding were forced to cease operations or merge with the winning bidders. At the time, New Zealand pathologists and laboratory scientists feared the government health system was undermining the financial stability of pathology laboratories and leaving portions of the country with limited testing capacity.

Now, arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant on the remote island nation may be creating a day of reckoning for that decision. In particular, “holiday hotspots” in New Zealand may be filling up with seasonal travelers at the exact moment a surge in COVID-19 testing is needed.

Holiday Destinations Lack Pathology Lab Capacity

Medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS), fears some small-town tourist destinations do not have the local-based medical laboratory testing capacity to process a surge in PCR tests and will need to ship samples elsewhere, delaying the speed at which COVID-19 test results can be delivered in communities that attract thousands of vacationers during New Zealand’s summer from December to February.

“In these areas, those swabs that are taken will end up being sent to the mothership so to speak, so one of the larger laboratories that’s nearby those regions,” he told Checkpoint. “So, there will be delays when this starts to kick on.”

Taylor also pointed out that shifting lab work to larger medical centers creates capacity concerns within those facilities as well.

“I will reiterate, all of the big hospitals will obviously still be operating 24-hour services doing the acute work that’s coming through,” he said. “But be aware, we do everything. We don’t just do COVID testing, so sometimes things are just going to have to wait in those periods.”

Terry Taylor

“We’ve certainly got to get together now and come up with a plan that works so that we do not inundate our laboratories and therefore the other health services,” medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor (above), president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science, told Newshub. “It is really not an option to test everyone. We need to be looking at who we test, how we test and when we test,” he added. (Photo copyright: Newshub.)

In a statement to Checkpoint, the New Zealand Ministry of Health maintained COVID-19 testing remained a priority for the government over the Christmas and New Year period.

“The ministry works closely with DHBs (District Health Boards) and laboratories to manage demands for testing, and to reiterate the importance of processing and returning tests as quickly as possible,” the statement said. “It should be noted that samples of close contacts of cases and high-risk individual are prioritized by laboratories.”

Dark Daily Correctly Predicted Pathology Lab Losses

In 2009, Dark Daily reported on New Zealand’s use of contract bidding for pathology lab testing services in Wellington and Auckland in an effort to drive down costs. The winning labs agreed to roughly a 20% decrease in reimbursement rates.

At that time, Editor Robert L. Michel predicted the loss of established pathology providers and insufficient reimbursement rates could lead to scaled down testing menus, loss of skilled staff and a negative impact on patient care. He noted then, “New Zealand may become the first developed country in the world to learn what happens to the entire healthcare system when deep budget cuts finally leave medical laboratories with insufficient reimbursement.

“Such a situation,” Michel continued, “would likely mean that laboratory test providers in New Zealand would lack the funding and resources to offer physicians and patients a full menu of state-of-the-art diagnostics tests. It could also mean that medical laboratories would lack adequate resources and skilled staff to sustain the quality of test results at a world-class level of quality, accuracy, reliability, and reproducibility. In either case, the quality of patient care would be negatively affected.”

Fast forward to 2022, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues some New Zealand leaders fear the opening of Auckland’s border to summer travelers will lead to community spread of the coronavirus at a time when budget cuts have left these same regions with local pathology testing capacity that is insufficient to meet the needs of the surrounding community.

In fact, New Zealand’s first case of community exposure to the Omicron variant was reported in Auckland on December 29, 2021, a Ministry of Health news release noted.

“You’re going to see the virus seeded everywhere,” epidemiologist Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, told The Guardian in mid-November.

Critical Supply Shortages as Pathology Testing ‘Crunch Point’ Reached

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand’s clinical laboratory system nearly reached a breaking point as a shortage of COVID-19 tests left the system teetering on the edge of collapse.

According to Joshua Freeman, MD, Clinical Director of Microbiology and Virology at the Canterbury DHB, the “crunch point” arrived around March 20, 2020, when New Zealanders were being urged to get tested so the country could determine if there was community transmission of the virus, online news site Stuff reported.

Meanwhile, testing supplies such as reagents, plastic tubes, and pipette tips were in short supply globally and 13 regional labs were yet to be set up across the country. Even once the new laboratories, district health board testing centers, and mobile clinics were up and running, procuring needed supplies remained challenging, according to COVID-19 testing data from the Ministry of Health.

America also Struggled with COVID-19 Supply Shortages

While New Zealand’s mostly publicly funded universal healthcare system has been stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s private system has not fared much better. In the early months of the pandemic, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, and testing materials also were in short supply in this country.

CBS News reported that the US was continuing to struggle with limited supplies of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests and long turnaround times for clinical laboratory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests as families gathered for the recent holiday season.

Thus, clinical laboratory leaders and laboratory scientists in this country should watch with keen interest at how New Zealand’s pathology laboratories fare as the Omicron variant further challenges the country’s testing capacity. 

Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Testing Times: How a Health Workforce Jumped Up to Help Stamp-out New Zealand’s Coronavirus Crisis

Lab Boss Warns of COVID Testing Delays in Holiday Hotspots

COVID-19 Warning: Omicron Will Overwhelm Us Within a Week If It Takes Hold in New Zealand, Experts Say

Criticism of Laboratory Workers ‘Unfair’–Industry Leader

First Community Exposures from Border-Related Omicron Case

Ministry of Health: Testing for COVID-19

Testing Times: How a Health Workforce Jumped Up to Help Stamp-Out New Zealand’s Coronavirus Crisis

New Zealand’s Health System Walks Pathology/Lab Testing Tightrope

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