The capacity of Canada’s public health laboratories to respond to an influenza pandemic and other emerging infectious diseases is compromised by a shortage of medical laboratory technologists.
The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) warns that losing almost 50 per cent of medical laboratory technologists (MLTs) to retirement in the next decade, combined with a lack of adequate training resources to bring new people into the profession, will make an already-stretched laboratory system even more vulnerable.
“Current health threats, such as an influenza pandemic or avian flu, make the skills of laboratory professionals more essential than ever,” says Reuben Noseworthy, CSMLS president. “There is a distinct threat to Canada’s public health if we can’t meet the challenges brought by these new and emerging pathogens.”
Medical laboratory professionals - medical laboratory technologists, medical laboratory assistants and medical laboratory scientists - are the nation’s third largest group of health care professionals. Eighty-five per cent of physicians’ diagnosis and treatment decisions are based on laboratory test results. During an infectious disease crisis, public health laboratories are called upon to perform high volumes of tests within a compressed time period.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Sheela Basrur, noted in her December 2005 annual report to the provincial legislature that the public health laboratory system is the “invisible and unsung testing support service for much of our work in infectious diseases and outbreak control…Simply put, public health’s ability to detect an outbreak and identify its cause depends on the existence of a strong, well-functioning public health laboratory system.”
Mr. Noseworthy says that more funding needs to be put into educating the next generation of medical laboratory technologists. “The number of positions in medical laboratory science education programs across the country has increased since 2000. However, funding to support clinical training has not kept pace” he says. A report released in 2005 by the CSMLS revealed a shortage of clinical placements, which if not addressed, will compromise the ability of educational institutions to deliver the clinical component of their programs in the future.
Kurt Davis, executive director of CSMLS, says that numerous reports published since the 2003 SARS crisis have emphasized the importance of laboratory medicine in the public health system. “Over and over we are hearing that laboratories are at the heart of our protection against infectious disease,” Mr. Davis says. “The Ontario SARS Commission report noted that the public laboratory system cannot be strengthened during a crisis, it must have the capacity to respond to an outbreak of infectious disease before a crisis hits.”
In the early 1990s, provincial governments across Canada reduced the number of medical laboratory training programs, resulting in fewer technologists graduating every year. The decrease in graduates, combined with the current and predicted rate of retirement among MLTs, puts pressure on the system at a time when the needs are expected to increase.
Medical laboratory professionals are in the spotlight this week as National Medical Laboratory Week is being celebrated across the country from April 23-29. Displays, educational materials and recruitment materials with the theme “On the Frontline for your Health” are available in hospitals, labs and other health care facilities across Canada.