Lab tech union warns of deteriorating care in Quebec
October 26, 2022
QUEBEC CITY – The union representing Quebec’s laboratory technicians says the quality of services in hospital labs will continue to affect patient care if the government doesn’t act quickly to stop it.
“There is a crisis situation in labs that already affects the health of the population. It affects results, and diagnoses are delayed. And now the situation is even more critical,” said Sandra Etienne (pictured), vice president of Syndicat APTS, a union representing professional and technical health and social services personnel.
She told CTV News about two recent examples of how vital it is for hospitals to have high-functioning labs and, in one instance, how the system failed.
“There was a situation at CHUM,” Etienne explained, “a postponement of surgeries because of the personnel shortage” in a critical part of the lab system: the hospital’s blood bank.
Blood bank technologists analyze patients’ blood samples before surgery to ensure they don’t receive blood infusions that “can attack their blood cells,” said Etienne.
Without the ability to make that information available to the medical teams in time, certain surgeries couldn’t proceed.
After Premier Francois Legault’s new cabinet was sworn-in, the president of the APTS, Robert Comeau asked the ministry to address the labour shortage “plaguing the system immediately.”
Comeau said Health Minister Christian Dube has to be “realistic.”
“The use of private mini-hospitals, subcontracting, and private employment agencies will not fix the flaws of the RSSS (healthcare system),” he said.
The APTS blames many of the problems with low staffing levels, overtime and lab closures on the then-Liberal government’s decision to centralize lab services in the province.
The process began in 2017 but hasn’t yet been implemented in all regions.
Some experts in Quebec have compared Optilab, as it’s called, to a forced merger that aimed to optimize lab services but instead created gaps in the system.
Staff had to leave local labs to work at central labs in other locations. As a result, Etienne said that some chose to leave the profession, unwilling or unable to travel farther or move to a different region.
“What’s happening now in most blood banks across Quebec is that people have to stay to do double shifts,” she said.
“In Gaspesie, it came out that some are saying they’re working 14 days in a row.”
“And so people are tired. They’re good soldiers, and they deserve to be recognized, but the government doesn’t value them,” said Etienne.
She said the Gaspesie region and others risk losing local lab services altogether.
One of the government’s solutions to the staffing shortage is to pull in less qualified technicians to carry out analyses that require a higher level of training, she said, singling out blood banks.
There’s an expertise required to obtain accurate results.
“That means either you save the patient or you kill the patient,” depending on the quality of the analysis, she said. “That’s how it works.”
The APTS last spoke with the health ministry on May 11, 2022, to again propose solutions.
“The government does not recognize labs. They’re devaluing the profession, and we can see that in the [government’s] health plan, laboratories are completely absent,” Etienne said.
She also said enrolments in medical technology training programs are down, and it’s more difficult for current students to do internships because labs in certain regions have closed.
The APTS is asking that the government offer incentives to lab technicians now working and offer bursaries to attract students to the field.
Etienne also said a recent outbreak of a potentially fatal and contagious fungus at Pierre Boucher Hospital in Longueuil, should make the government think twice about its Optilab expansion plans.
“They want to remove the labs from there. They want to concentrate all the labs in the greater Monteregie area… in the next two or three years,” Etienne said.
Imagine what would have happened, she suggested, if the hospital had to send out samples for testing instead of being able to handle the urgent situation on-site.