A looming shortage of Canada's laboratory professionals threatens Canada's ability to respond to emerging pathogens like SARS and West Nile virus.
“We are worried," says Geraldine Webb, president of the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS). "Nearly half of Canada’s medical laboratory technologists are expected to retire over the next 13 years. Governments have been slow to respond to shortages in our profession and we’re very concerned that the shortage will compromise Canada’s ability to respond to new infectious diseases in the future.”
In the 2003 SARS outbreak, tests conducted by medical laboratory technologists confirmed the disease's presence. Laboratory technologists were also an integral part of the health care teams that managed the SARS outbreak.
"The results of laboratory tests provide crucial information to doctors so that they can accurately diagnose, treat and monitor their patients - in fact, it’s estimated that a physician makes 85 per cent of treatment and diagnosis decisions based on the results of medical laboratory tests," Ms. Webb said. “But unlike doctors and nurses, most of our work is done behind the scenes, in the laboratory. As a result, governments and health care planners have had a tendency to overlook human resource issues in our profession, and that's a serious problem."
Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist at the Toronto Medical Laboratories (a partnership between the University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital), says that SARS highlighted how important the availability of diagnostic testing is to the effective management of infectious disease outbreaks. “The medical laboratory technologists who work in our hospital and public health laboratories played a critical role in managing the SARS outbreak in Toronto last spring, I am very concerned about the impact that the shortage will have on our capacity to respond to similar situations in the future,” she says.
The final report of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health (Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada), which was tabled in October 2003, recommended the development of a national strategy for “the renewal of health human resources in public health.”
The federal government responded by providing $665 million to strengthen Canada’s public health system. Some of that money will be used to increase laboratory capacity.
“We commend the federal government for investing in our public health system; however, if we are to increase laboratory capacity, we must ensure that there is a sufficient number of qualified medical laboratory professionals,” says Ms. Webb. “Provincial education and health ministries need to commit more dollars to fund training programs. Only with proper investment in the training of laboratory technologists - including funding of essential clinical experience - can Canada expect to meet the challenge of emerging health threats.”
CSMLS is the national certifying body for medical laboratory technologists and assistants and a voluntary professional association for medical laboratory professionals - Canada's third largest group of health care providers.