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Union warns patients at risk as 10 of 12 lab technologist positions at Thompson hospital vacant

Thompson General Hospital, shown here in a 2021 photo,  lost a lab technologist in late December, meaning the two remaining staff have been pulling long hours and have often been on call when not at the hospital, their union says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
Thompson General Hospital, shown here in a 2021 photo, lost a lab technologist in late December, meaning the two remaining staff have been pulling long hours and have often been on call when not at the hospital, their union says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

A health-care union is repeating fears that a longstanding staffing shortage of medical technologists could lead to the collapse of a lab and put patients at a northern Manitoba hospital, where 83 per cent of the specialized positions remain vacant.

Thompson General Hospital is now down to two lab technologists, after another staff member left before the holidays.

That means 10 of 12 lab technologists positions at the hospital are now unfilled, says the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.

"We certainly don't want to see people leave because the situation they're in is untenable," said MAHCP president Jason Linklater. "Right now it is about the furthest thing from a healthy environment."

The union represents about 7,000 allied health workers across 40 professions, including respiratory therapists, diagnostics experts, rural paramedics, dispatch staff, lab technologists and more.

Concerns around the shortages in Thompson aren't new.

Staff sent senior management "a letter of warning" in 2020, when there were seven lab technologists, saying "if something wasn't done, the lab was going to end up in a critical condition," Linklater said.

Last April, while still in Opposition, the NDP criticized the Progressive Conservative government over the fact only three of 12 medical lab technologist positions were filled in Thompson.

Linklater said since Thompson lost a lab technologist in late December, the two remaining staff have been pulling long hours and have often been on call when not at the hospital.

Recently, one of those technologists called in sick after working 24 hours in a row, said Linklater, and the other worker was unable to step in.

"They had previously had one hour of sleep in that 24-hour period due to the combination of being on shift and on call," he said.

"That means they're doing an eight-hour shift and then they're doing on-call after that, and sleep is intermittent when you're doing shift and call. Most departments never do shift and call … involving one person at a time like that."

3 positions posted now

Shared Health said in a statement that three vacant lab technologist positions have been posted for Thompson, with ongoing recruitment happening across Canada at institutions where students are training for jobs in the field. A social media ad campaign is also aimed at attracting international candidates.

In the meantime, the provincial health organization says it has tried to shuffle staff and implement other measures in response to the shortage.

Multiple technologists from other jurisdictions have volunteered to go to Thompson and take on more shifts to help support outpatient services "while offering respite to the remaining technologists," Shared Health said.

Thompson lab hours have been shortened by two hours per day, with open hours coinciding with times of peak demand, according to the organization's statement.

A newer program, point-of-care testing, sees nurses, physicians and clinical assistants do certain tests at the Thompson facility.

Once it's fully up and running, the goal is to reduce demands on lab technologists by 30 per cent at the hospital laboratory, "while allowing for more timely care for clinics," Shared Health said.

After a news conference on Tuesday on an unrelated topic, Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara was asked what the NDP government is doing to help fill the 10 vacant lab technologist positions in Thompson and other vacancies in the north.

Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara after a news conference at Klinic in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.
Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara after a news conference at Klinic in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara says one of the most important ways to improve the health-care system right now is to retain staff. (CBC)

Asagwara said the previous administration didn't take action to fill those holes, but the NDP is taking steps to do that with a focus on hanging on to the lab technologists who still remain.

"Retention is one of the most important components, if not the most, in terms of how to use staff successfully in the health-care system. Beyond that, we want to make sure that we can recruit and train as many people as possible," they said.

"All the vacancies need to be filled. People living in the north deserve quality health care and deserve to have these services available when they need it."

Asagwara did not provide an estimate for when the positions might be filled.

The health minister and Premier Wab Kinew have also been soliciting feedback from front-line workers as part of what they describe as a "listening tour."

"Changing the culture and health care takes a lot of effort, it takes being unified and making that a priority, but it also takes time," said Asagwara.

"I would ask all those who are interested and invested in improving the culture and health care to work with our government. We're here to listen."

Linklater commends the listening tour and says MAHCP members have received that message, too.

"I just think there needs to be caution around rhetoric around 'culture change' and 'help is coming,' if it's not coming within a meaningful time frame for people," he said.

"'Culture change' means that people's work lives are changing. And people's work lives are not changing."