Interior Health hospitals face lab tech staffing shortfalls

Health region struggles to fill job vacancies in laboratory services
Both Okanagan College and Interior Health are advocating for an accredited medical laboratory technology program to be opened at the Kelowna campus.

Interior Health is facing a desperate situation that threatens patient care and sustainability of laboratory services, say local health officials.

But a suggested solution to increase the medical laboratory technology (MLT) vacant job postings is mired in bureaucratic stagnancy among different health and education agencies.

And sitting on the sidelines waiting for that logjam to sort itself out is Colin Pritchard, a well known local philanthropist and president of The Colin & Lois Pritchard Foundation, who is prepared to commit funding to a help alleviate the training shortfall.

At present, there are two accredited MLT training facilities in B.C., one at BCIT in Burnaby and another at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George.

While BCIT has expanded its intake by eight seats for the 2023-24 academic year, these programs can't meet the demand for certified MLTs.

In a letter sent to Kang, minister of advanced education and skills training, on Sept. 1, 2022, co-signed by a dozen local doctors and health region officials, they stated at that time there were 48 unfilled MLT positions corresponding to 42 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff across the region.

"The majority of those positions have been posted broadly for more than 90 days, and despite the $10,000 signing bonus for hard-to-recruit locations, remain unfilled. As a result of this, we are having difficulty maintaining basic, essential laboratory services in the region," stated the letter.

swisshallmarks has learned current MLT staffing – 47 postings and 40 FTE as of last week - are consistent with those numbers expressed in the letter nearly two years ago, and the recruiting issues of encouraging people to relocate in the Okanagan persist, largely blamed on the high cost of living and housing.

"These numbers fluctuate as new MLTs are hired and/or MLTs leave their positions," said Joanne Isber, IH program director, laboratory services, in a statement to Black Press.

"We prioritize exams related to surgeries and urgent cases, so those services at our larger centres are supported."

In the letter to Kang, the suggested solution was to start an accredited MLT program at Okanagan College in Kelowna to provide an opportunity to recruit candidates from the Interior Health region, who would not encounter the challenges of remote learning and would likely be motivated to stay and work where they are trained.

"We recommend that a MLT program be instituted at Okanagan College as soon as possible to address the future needs of the region," the letter stated.

"It would encourage our current staff to see the light at what is currently a dark tunnel of heavy workload with little relief in sight.

"Many of the medical and technical laboratory staff at KGH are willing and eager to participate in teaching for this program, and feel it is essential for the continuation of high quality laboratory services in Interior Health."

As these discussions continued, in stepped Pritchard, who upon learning of the MLT shortage situation saw the impact the situation would pose not only locally, but also to Interior rural residents who rely on larger urban centre hospitals like Kelowna General Hospital for health care services.

Pritchard offered to cover the cost of all the training equipment required to create the MLT program at the Kelowna OC campus, with the government called on to cover the infrastructure and ongoing staff costs.

But an initial push to see the program created has hit a roadblock. Pritchard has secured letters of support from the Kelowna and West Kelowna mayors, and earlier this year attempted to 'ambush' the finance minister when she visited Kelowna to speak about her government's 2023-24 budget.

"She seemed positive to what we were telling her, but since then we have heard nothing," Pritchard said.

In a statement released to Black Press, Okanagan College says it is actively exploring opportunities to expand health-care education and training.

"The College is working in collaboration with IH and the provincial government on the feasibility of a medical laboratory technician (MLT) program at Okanagan College in the future, although we are still early in that process," the statement reads.

The college also noted it is taking steps to expand access to health-care education in the region, including the addition of nine new seats in OC pharmacy technician program by January 2025 and doubling access to Practical Nursing diploma program from 24 seats now to 48 seats by 2026."

In an update emailed to Black Press on July 4 from Allie Moore, senior public affairs officer for the ministry of post-secondary education and future skills, the ministry reiterated its support for Okanagan College to develop a business case proposal for a future MLT program in Kelowna.

"The Ministry received Okanagan College's business case proposal in late 2023 and are working with the Ministry of Health to identify opportunities to support a program at Okanagan College. The work continues," read the statement.

The statement also recognizes IH has expressed a desire for an MLT program in the Interior.

"Many factors influence program expansions," the statement continued. "In February 2022, government provided $1,488,612 in new ongoing funding to the British Columbia Institute of Technology to expand their Medical Laboratory Science program by 16 seats starting September 2022 and $551,670 in new ongoing annual funding to the College of New Caledonia to expand their Medical Laboratory Technologist program by 12 seats starting January 2023.

"This represents a 20 per cent increase in the number of seats available at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and a 50 per cent increase in the number of seats available at the College of New Caledonia."

In a statement to Black Press, Isber said IH continues to advocate for the MLT training program at Okanagan College.

"MLTs are an integral part of our health care services - they provide laboratory data on a variety of tissue specimens, blood samples and other body fluids using sophisticated biomedical instrumentation and techniques that aid in detecting cancer, cardiac conditions, chronic diseases and identification of bacteria or viruses that cause infection," said Isber.

"We know that students who train in the Interior are also more likely to seek employment in our region, which will benefit our patients and services." Isber said IH and the college are involved in ongoing discussions about the program, including the ability to provide practicum placements for students and jobs when they graduate.

Pritchard wants to cut through the red tape and see the MLT program get started, speaking in stark terms of the potential for the 17 operating rooms at KGH being reduced to 10 or 12 because of a shortage of lab support, of the emergency department reduced to 12-15 hour days of service.

"That is what is frustrating about why no action is being taken," Pritchard said.

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for swisshallmarks in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
Read more