The threat of a global flu pandemic, spiraling cancer rates, and lessons learned from the 2003 SARS crisis combine to illustrate the danger of Canada’s current and future shortage of medical laboratory technologists.
“As a nation, we are vulnerable,” says Shelley Sanders, president of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS). “Today, a new infectious disease can leap across continents on the strength of a single airline ticket. The incidence of cancer is rising faster than the population rate. At the same time we’re losing almost 50 per cent of our medical laboratory technologists in Canada to retirement within the next decade.”
“New illnesses are emerging and old ones are changing,” says Kurt Davis, executive director of CSMLS. “We are facing the prospect of empty laboratories without the trained professionals to aid in detecting these emerging pathogens.”
Medical laboratory professionals are the nation’s third largest group of health care professionals. Eighty-five per cent of physicians’ diagnosis and treatment decisions are based on laboratory test results.
In the early 1990s, provincial governments across Canada reduced the number of medical laboratory training programs, resulting in fewer technologists graduating every year. The decrease in graduates, combined with the current and predicted rate of retirement among MLTs, puts pressure on the system.
“While we celebrate the profession during National Medical Laboratory Week (April 24-30), we can’t ignore the very real challenges,” Ms. Sanders says. “More dollars need to be put into training. Without the proper investment of training MLTs – including support for on-site clinical training – Canada will be compromised in meeting the challenges of new and emerging health threats.”
The second interim report of Ontario’s SARS Commission, led by Mr. Justice Archie Campbell and released April 11, 2005, emphasized the importance of laboratory medicine in the public health system. “Laboratories are at the heart of our protection against infectious disease,” the report states.
On April 12, 2005, the Canadian Cancer Society announced that new cancer diagnoses have outstripped Canada’s population growth by a rate of about two to one since 2000. The society projects 149,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed this year.
“The increasing incidence of cancer will alone have a big effect on the need for laboratory medicine,” Mr. Davis says. Three common areas of specialty for MLTs include diagnostic cytology (study of cells for the detection of cancer), hematology (including detection of blood cancers), and histology/pathology (including biopsies of body tissue to detect cancer).
National Medical Laboratory Week is being celebrated with the theme: “On the Frontline for your Health.” Displays, educational materials and recruitment materials are available in hospitals, labs and other health care facilities across Canada this week.