Medical laboratories facing the “tsunami” of staff departures

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Covid-19

Poor pay, an aging workforce and the stress of the pandemic are all factors pushing growing numbers of lab scientists into retirement with no replacement stream, according to the sector

New Zealand’s medical laboratory workforce is beginning to shrink, with fears of a flood of departures as exhaustion from the Covid-19 response hits an aging workforce.

Industry figures indicate worker pay rates need to improve, while also urging the government to play a bigger role in training new specialists and supporting the sector.

The country’s labs were in the spotlight earlier this year when the Omicron outbreak caused a surge in demand for PCR tests.

After testing capacity fell well below official government estimates, Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield admitted the Department of Health had overestimated the number of PCR tests that could be processed when the virus took hold. took off in the community.

Now figures from the Council of Medical Sciences provided to Newsroom show the number of practicing medical laboratory scientists in New Zealand has fallen over the past year, from 1,823 in 2021 to just 1,809 in 2022.

Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences, told the newsroom the slowdown was concerning but unsurprising, with the institute warning new health minister David Clark in 2017 “that we we were going to have problems in the next few years”.

The lab’s workforce was already 10% below optimal even before the pandemic began, while Covid testing requirements had added further pressure to an already heavy workload.

“We were expected to increase our workflows by 25-40% in the January-February period with Omicron, with the same staff. How do you think these employees felt at the end of it all? »

Dr Deborah Powell, national secretary of the Apex Union of Allied Scientific and Technical Health Professionals, told Newsroom that the aging workforce has long been an issue. The average medical laboratory science worker was 55 years old, while pay and employment conditions were not attractive enough to attract young scientists.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of people retiring: I attended a retirement party last night for 14 [people] in a laboratory.

The strains of the Covid response had acted as the final straw for some considering retirement, but Powell said the pre-Covid workload in hospitals was also relentless.

“A lot of our scientists are really on a knife edge right now – I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being a tsunami of people drifting away from the profession.”

“It’s been like a slow tsunami that’s been approaching for a while – then add in Covid and it just crashed into our shores and it’s going to continue to do so.”

Lab workers were ‘a bit of a hidden workforce’ before the pandemic, with district health boards prioritizing other areas rather than addressing underlying recruitment and retention issues .

Taylor said the government’s emphasis on automation through increased use of technology did not stack up, given that such machines could break down and still needed expert oversight from scientists.

“A lot of our scientists are really on a knife edge right now – I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being a tsunami of people drifting away from the profession.”

While around $300 million a year had been spent on Covid PCR testing, it was unclear how much of that had gone to training new staff or expanding areas of research and diagnostics. .

“We have to ask both the Minister and the Ministry of Health, you are ready to throw millions of dollars at it, but where did it go? It’s a bit like the money for mental health, the $1.2 billion that was spent on mental health and no one knows where it went.

Taylor said more money needed to be spent on training New Zealanders, while there also needed to be greater retention of institutional knowledge in the sector.

A “cohesive” plan is needed

Taylor and Powell hoped the government’s health reforms could lead to a shake-up in the laboratory testing sector, with Powell saying the union had pushed for Health NZ to create a single national service covering both private and public laboratories.

“I’m not particularly concerned about the owner of a lab, I’m concerned that we are consistent, that we have a plan, that we commit and invest in that plan for the whole laboratory service in New Zealand. “

A Department of Health spokesperson told Newsroom that the department is aware of the “considerable pressure” being faced by laboratory workers and all healthcare personnel as a result of the pandemic response.

“Although this was exacerbated by Covid-19, pressures on the workforce existed before the pandemic. This is largely the result of an aging population, the increasing complexity of population health profiles, and an aging health workforce.

The government’s health reforms, which take effect from July, focus on structural changes to the health system and will provide an opportunity to strengthen labor supply and distribution.

The ministry was working with the entire health system to consider ways to strengthen the country’s laboratory system, and a shared governance group had begun work on “a public health laboratory science strategy and operating model in the context of a broader surveillance strategy”.

The Newsroom contacted the offices of Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins, Minister of Health Andrew Little and Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall to ask if the government was concerned about labor issues. work and what he planned to do in response. None had responded at the time of publication.

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