Health Ministers seldom know much about medical labs. One former health minister told us bluntly that he knew nothing about labs. This lack of knowledge doesn’t appear to prevent them from making bad decisions.
On Tuesday NDP MPP Gilles Bisson asked Health Minister Deb Matthews about the potential closure of provincial labs around the province, including Timmins. Bisson is likely referring to public health labs, given Timmins already has a private lab, Lifelabs, which does community-based lab testing.
Health Minister Deb Matthews replied that there was a review of labs conducted in 2007 by an independent consulting firm to assess the service delivery model when it comes to labs. The report she was likely referring to was the RPO Report, which evaluated a pilot project involving 12 small hospitals who were doing community-based lab testing. The 12 did not include Timmins.
Under the Harris government, lab work was cleaved in two. Hospitals continued to do inpatient lab testing; lab tests ordered outside of a hospital would be done at one of several private labs, such as Lifelabs and Gamma Dynacare. The pilot was intended to use small rural hospitals to do this community lab work, often working with a private sector partner.
The 2008 RPO report showed tremendous advantage in having community lab work done by these hospitals, but then dutifully recommended against it in one of the weakest rationalizations ever to emerge from a health care consulting firm. This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with Timmins and the public health labs.
In her reply to Bisson, the Minister also implied that lab technologists were somehow not front line health care workers. She said: “The people I talk to, when they think of health care, they think of our front-line workers, they think of our doctors, our nurses, our personal support workers; they think of people who actually provide care.”
Bisson correctly replied that lab technologists were front line workers. They are essential partners in the diagnosis process. More than 80 per cent of all diagnosis relies upon a lab test.
The technologists who work at the public health labs are concerned about who may be next to close following the literal demolishing of the Windsor public health lab to make room for a highway. OPSEU fears that the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (OAHPP) is looking to reduce the number of labs it operates around the province. No decisions have yet been made public.
The OAHPP Public Health Laboratories (PHL) provide clinical and environmental laboratory testing, related expert advice and research in support of the prevention and control of infectious diseases and the protection and promotion of the public’s health in Ontario. This is a very different function from the community and hospital-based labs.
The distance between Timmins and the next public health lab would be substantial, creating delays in getting timely lab results. Given the recent history of outbreaks in Ontario, it’s likely the citizens of the north will not be very pleased should this lab close.
The OAHPP claims rationalization will make them more efficient. We have heard this all before. Rationalizing hospitals was supposed to make them more efficient. Instead it increased costs and placed many in significant debt. The private labs were supposed to make community-based testing more efficient, but they cost as much as 50 per cent more per test than when they had been conducted in the hospital.
If the Minister would like to be among the first to really learn something about how labs work, we’d be happy to extend an invitation.
For the record, Bisson asked the Minister to say she would not close the lab in Timmins . She did not.