Sask. 'close to a breaking point' with lab tech shortage

The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) says there’s a shortage of lab tech workers in Saskatchewan.

“We believe we’re close to a breaking point,” CEO Christine Nielsen said.

The group is the certifying body for medical lab workers in Canada. It sets qualification standards, conducts exams and issues credentials.

Nielsen says 150 fewer lab techs are in Saskatchewan compared to 10 years ago — a drop to 749 from 899.

“Even before the pandemic, testing was rising based on the aging population,” Nielsen says, referring to routine blood testing and pre-surgery screening that lab techs perform.

Nielsen says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forward a new workload and has created a backlog for existing medical procedures.

“Right now we've got a crunch. Everybody wants data yesterday,” she says.

Nielsen says with fewer lab workers, there will be a “cascading effect” on the medical system with delayed diagnosis, which delays treatment.

The group wants government spending to address the shortage.

Nielsen suggests Canada needs better bridging programs — where workers who are trained internationally undergo a shorter program. The average lab tech program is two to four years.

The group says while enrolment into lab tech programs is up, schools face capacity limits because of the clinical placements.

“What we have trouble with is the clinical placement, or the internship, at a hospital that is already short-staffed,” Nielsen says.

The province’s only medical laboratory technology program is at Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Saskatoon Campus. It accepts 40 students per year.

Jodi Thompson, the head of the program, says it has expanded twice in the past few years.

“We’ve seen the alarm bells going off for a while and then COVID-19 really pushed us past that,” Thompson tells CTV News.

Because the program has a clinical placement, an in-hospital internship, there are capacity restraints.

Thompson says simulation learning could be a solution.

“So there would still definitely be a need for some clinical placement, but there would also be simulation — hands-on, actual activities, done in a safe environment like a campus lab,” she says.

Thompson says adding more seats into the program could also address the shortage, but that would require government funding.