Medical laboratory sector warns profession in crisis mode

The medical laboratory science sector has delivered a “document of crisis” to the health minister, warning of serious consequences for the entire health system if workers’ concerns are not addressed.

Worker conducting laboratory testing.

Medical laboratory science workers typically work inside laboratories analysing blood and tissue samples. Photo: Unsplash / CDC

The New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences, which covers all laboratory and diagnostic service workers, delivered the document at Parliament, pleading for a full and comprehensive review of the crisis facing their profession and work force.

Its president Terry Taylor told Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan the profession had been faced with a range of issues that urgently needed to be resolved if the health system was to avoid serious consequences.

Medical laboratory science workers typically work inside laboratories analysing blood and tissue samples while also advising medical practitioners around optimal treatment solutions for specific patients.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic much of the sector’s work has been re-focused towards the pressing issue of processing and diagnosing PCR tests.

Over the last year, 200 workers left the sector, leaving a workforce of just 3600 laboratory scientists and technicians.

Taylor said the reasons behind the exodus of laboratory workers included unsatisfactory workplace conditions and pay rates, a lack of opportunity for career progression, and hefty workloads.

“For two years they have worked their butts off to get everything through and as you are finding out now we’re extremely under resourced on the front line, we only had a limited workforce to get through this… it’s certainly been a long drawn out process,” he said.

“We’re almost pleading don’t forget about us, we’ve basically been the workforce that’s been overrun sitting under the trenches now and we’re trying to pick ourselves up so we need some major support here.”

Terry Taylor, President of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS), was shocked at the ferocity of his symptoms when he tested positive for Covid-19.

Terry Taylor Photo: Supplied

The workforce crisis document delivered to Parliament today outlined concerns from frontline laboratory workers around a lack of funding and the need to future proof educational pathways into the profession, especially for Māori and Pasifika.

The document, called ‘The crisis facing the medical laboratory profession in Aotearoa New Zealand’, was delivered to Health Minister Andrew Little at 1.15pm today on Parliament steps.

It outlines eight recommendations for the government to address issues facing the medical laboratory sector, however, the details of these recommendations can not yet be made public due to commercial sensitivity.

The document provides the health minister with a summary of Laboratory workforce numbers (including specific Māori and Pasifika workforce numbers), DHB lab contracts, labs’ role in research and development and a fiscal accountability summary.

It also summarises lab staff’s work and life balance, workforce culture, details of training for lab scientists and technicians, professional development funding and the role immigration plays in the workforce.

Taylor said he held an “incredibly productive” meeting with Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall this morning and had a similarly productive conversation with Minister of Health Andrew Little on Parliament steps.

Little said he received the report today. “I have an understanding of the issues and am seeking more advice from officials.”

Andrew Little

Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences Terry Taylor said almost all parts of the health system relied on laboratory testing, despite the sector receiving just five percent of the health budget.

“For 95 percent of the health system they can not function unless we’re functioning at the top level so the flow on effects of a laboratory not being able to do what it should are going to affect every other part of the health system.”

He also questioned where the government funding for PCR testing had been utilised, saying it was clear it had not been used to improve working conditions in the industry.

And if staff continued to leave the profession as a result of these issues, the resulting lack of frontline diagnostics would leave health professionals across the board “chasing their tails”, he said.

“We’re looking at the bigger picture but we’ve also got to think about our staff, we’re not as well looked after as other equivalent professions we’re way behind what the nurses get and everyone’s standing up for them saying look at us.”

Medical laboratory science graduates were paid less than nurses even though they had to study an additional two years to gain their qualification, he said.

With the need for PCR testing now having dropped off, he said it felt as though the workers had been forgotten, despite playing as essential a role as other frontline health professions like nurses and doctors.

He acknowledged the medical laboratory science sector had suffered from a visibility problem in the past but assured it was working to open its doors to media to remove a degree of separation from the public eye.

Taylor said if not for the added pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, the medical science laboratory workforce would still be in a precarious position like many other areas of health.

The government needed to consider an overhaul of how they approached the waning capabilities of pivotal health services such as laboratory science, he said.

“This is a once in a generation time to reset a lot of these issues… look at the midwives, look at the trouble they’re in… look at the nurses.

“We’ve got to forget about the past and start coming up with solutions for the future.”

He urged the government to show genuine intent that is was committed to fixing staffing shortages by committing to improving educational pathways into the industry.

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