EORLA: Cornwall cuts an improvement? We want to see the evidence

Cornwall residents will not have to travel to Ottawa to have tissue samples taken in the lab. Instead just a tiny part of them will make the trip – their tissue samples. The patients can stay where they are, as will the Cornwall-based pathologists whose job it is to analyse the results.

The net effect will be four jobs lost in the Cornwall Community Hospital lab run by the Eastern Ontario Regional Lab Association (EORLA). These are the professional staff that would normally prepare the samples for the pathologists to analyse.

The impact on turnaround will depend on who you talk to.

The hospital argues that this represents an improvement, suggesting the lights are just that much brighter in the big city lab and this will somehow lead to a quality nirvana and rapid turnaround.

The reality is the samples will have to be transported to Ottawa where the specimen slides can be prepared, and then sent back to Cornwall for analysis. That’s a round trip of 212 kilometres.

Any time a specimen has to be physically transported somewhere usually adds time and cost. Add in some bad winter weather, and that can mean further delays and sometimes lost material.

We’ve heard this all before around quality and cost. This was the same theory behind the Harris government’s decision to cleave lab services in two – hospitals would conduct testing for their own patients, the other “community” referrals would have to go to large centralized labs run by for-profit companies (in Ontario its mostly Lifelabs). By bringing together testing in these large centralized labs it was supposed to save money, improve quality and speed up turnaround. That didn’t really happen.

For years the government didn’t want to know the outcome of their decision to cleave lab services. A pilot project in which 12 small rural and northern hospitals continued to do community based testing was left in place for a decade without anyone wanting to know the results of the experiment.

When it was finally studied, the tiny individual community hospitals were turning around lab results faster, cheaper, and the local doctors much preferred to talk to the local hospital lab technologists rather than get in line waiting to talk to someone at a distant centralized lab. It also benefited the local hospital: the added volumes provided revenues that would sustain longer hours and newer equipment.

In this case the central lab is run by the hospitals themselves, but the same obstacles likely apply to sending samples up the highway.

You don’t have to be a health expert to smell something’s awry when you hear about job cuts intended to improve services.

Like the hospitals that run the joint labs, EORLA is continuing to see a freeze on funding while costs are going up. Their last annual report suggests costs are rising by 1 per cent per year while funding is flat lined.

As much as the hospitals like to talk about efficiencies, the job cuts in Cornwall appear to be driven by funding coming, or more specifically, not coming from the province.

The question is: did EORLA get this right?

To date EORLA has not offered any evidence to back up their decision.

What are the savings? How will lab specimens travel to Ottawa and still save turnaround time? What is the cost of sending these samples to Ottawa by courier? Does the central lab have the capacity to take on this additional volume of work? What are the volumes involved?

There are so many questions and so few answers.

EORLA has a lengthy history of overly optimistic projections, including how much money was going to be saved through what turned out to be a very long and costly merger process.

Cornwall Community Hospital CEO Jeanette Despatie is scheduled to come before Cornwall’s City Council May 26 at 7 pm.

If you are concerned about the future of lab testing at Cornwall Community Hospital, please join us for a small rally at 6 pm to welcome Ms. Despatie on May 26. Watch this space for more details coming soon.

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