A nation-wide shortage of medical laboratory technologists is predicted within the next five to ten years resulting in a serious health risk to all Canadians. The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) is urging the federal and provincial governments to take immediate action to avert this impending health care crisis.
CSMLS is the certifying body and professional society for medical laboratory technologists in Canada. It represents 14,000 highly trained medical laboratory technologists who conduct sophisticated medical tests on blood, body fluids and tissue in hospitals, public or privately based laboratories and in research facilities. Test results are used by physicians to evaluate and make informed decisions about their patients’ health and possible treatment or, to help further advances in medical research. Medical laboratory technologists represent the third largest group of health care professionals after nurses and physicians.
"Our data indicates that 16 per cent of our members will retire in five years; in ten years this jumps to 33 per cent," says CSMLS executive director Kurt Davis. "There simply won’t be enough new technologists entering the work force to replace those who retire because training programs in Canada have been cut back or eliminated altogether. Compounding this crisis is the fact that it will hit at a time when the demand for health care services is expected to grow due to the aging of the population," he says.
As a point of comparison, in 1998 there were approximately 164 students enrolled in medical laboratory training programs in eight programs in Canada (outside Quebec) compared to 752 students in 21 programs in 1993. The only province that appears to have a sufficient number of training positions is Quebec.
At the urging of CSMLS, the Advisory Committee of Health Human Resources (ACHHR), an interprovincial committee comprised of deputy ministers of health or their designates, conducted an environmental scan on the human resource issues affecting medical laboratory technology. The results were published in a report in May,1999.
The report concluded that "the anticipated rate of retirement in the baby boom technologists work force in the next five to 10 years is expected to create a significant shortage, which is already being felt. "It recommended that a national strategy be developed to address this impending human resource crisis.
Mr. Davis says that the report, while a good first step, does not provide enough detailed information to make informed decisions to tackle the problem. Most of the hard data used in the report was provided by CSMLS which only represents approximately 60 per cent of the medical laboratory technologists working in Canada. "We need more complete data to determine how many and when will technologists be retiring. Which medical laboratories in which hospitals and communities will be hardest hit? How many new medical laboratory technologists will need to be trained? How many training programs need to be established or re-opened and where?" he says.
The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science is urging the Advisory Committee on Health Human Resources to take immediate action on three of the report’s recommendations:
- establishment of a national data base to identify the scope of the problem and define the short and long-term needs
- co-ordination and sharing of labour market information to help determine accurate projections at least three to five years in advance
- co-ordination and sharing of educational program information to ensure that a sufficient number of positions are available to train future medical laboratory technologists
"Our entire level and quality of health care is at risk," says Mr. Davis. "Even if steps were taken immediately, it would take a minimum of three years before any additional medical laboratory technologists would be available to enter the workforce. However, with quick, decisive action by our profession, other health care professionals and by the provincial and federal governments, I believe this crisis can be significantly reduced if not adverted."
Mary Ellen Jeans, executive director, Canadian Nurses Association and co-chair of the Health Action Lobby (HEAL) supports CSMLS’s call for the development of a national strategy to address the impending shortage of medical laboratory technologists. "HEAL has recommended to the federal government that a long-term, integrated human resources plan be developed for all health care providers–including medical laboratory technologists," says Ms. Jeans. "We must take action now to ensure that there will be a sufficient number of health care professionals to meet the needs of Canadians in the years to come."