Interior Health says it is trying to support, not undermine, lab assistants with a new program that provides on-the-job training for new healthcare workers who draw blood.
The health authority’s launch of a new “lab phlebotomist” position drew fire this week from a local trained medical lab assistant, who raised concerns that IH was quietly lowering hiring standards for her profession. While a medical lab assistant requires post-secondary schooling, the phlebotomist role will include only on-the-job training.
Joanne Isber, IH program director of pathology and laboratory medicine, tells Castanet that while the public job descriptions for a phlebotomist and medical lab assistant appear similar, they are not the same role.
The phlebotomist’s job will be entirely focused on drawing blood from patients. A medical lab assistant, while they may also draw blood, also works in “transfusion medicine, anatomic pathology, microbiology — we're utilizing them to support other other lab processes and workflow,” Isber said.
The new phlebotomist role is intended to take the technical task of drawing blood off the plate of the medical lab assistant to free them up for other tasks.
The 12 weeks of on-the-job training for phlebotomist staff includes things like medical terminology and biology, said Isber, who noted they had medical oversight and the professional practice office involved in creating the program.
The lab phlebotomist role lists a starting wage of $24.04, while a lab assistant starts at $25.31 per hour, something a lab assistant told Castanet made them feel like their education is “obsolete.”
Isber said she agreed with the notion that lab assistants are underpaid, but that is out of their hands as wages are set by a collective agreement.
“They really need to go through their union on that one, because that's all part of collective bargaining,” Isber said. “We advocate for them. But I don't have control over that.”
The new phlebotomist position was created in accordance to the collective agreement “through terms of process and classification benchmarks,” she said.
There is a national shortage of lab assistants in Canada with nearly every Interior Health facility in desperate need of them. IH went as far as offering $10,000 signing bonuses for lab staff in April.
Isber said IH has been “really struggling with service disruptions” due to the shortage and the feedback they received from existing staff was “we need help.”
“This was a good way to alleviate some of that pressure for them,” she continued. We didn't want to lose lab assistants, because their workload was so high.”
“I think it's going to be a good thing to help sustainability going forward.”
Isber said they also hope the phlebotomist position offers laddering opportunities to staff once they are in the door, and the health authority would be willing to sponsor the post-secondary education of phlebotomists who want to become full lab assistants.
“I would like to emphasize, though the medical lab assistants (MLAs) are very important to us. We really need MLAs, they do a fantastic job. Their job is difficult. It's challenging right now, and we really appreciate everything that we're doing. We want to take some of the pressure off of them.”
“I'd like to encourage anybody out there who's thinking about healthcare roles, to pursue the laboratory.”
Unvaccinated laboratory staff seek return
Dr. Joshua Nordine, a Rutland general practitioner who has been advocating for the rehiring of unvaccinated healthcare staff, says timely access to lab results is a “key factor in patient outcome.”
"Healthcare is failing and we need to advocate for more medical lab assistants, medical lab technologists and clerks. We need to advocate for meaningful change and rehiring any of those that were fired. The biggest risk to a persons health is not having access to timely medical care, including effective laboratory services."
"Putting barriers to outpatient laboratory access puts patients lives at risk. When patients face excessive wait times at labs of hours, or additional travel time when their local lab is closed this creates even more problems," he said, adding there is no way to capture the “bad outcomes” associated with delays with getting lab results, “but it is obtusely apparent, the harm, when the government can't provide basic delivery of lab services.”
Terri Perepolkin, a lab technologist of 17 years at Vernon Jubilee Hospital prior to being terminated for being unvaccinated, said the hospital lost at least five laboratory assistants or technologists to the mandate.
"I can agree that lab services were struggling before the pandemic, but know that IH fired a lot of staff that had many years of experience."
Perepolkin served as the HSA union shop steward at the hospital before being let go and reached out to Castanet after reading coverage about the new phlebotomist program.
"IH needs to be accountable to their patients and bring back their qualified employees that they wrongfully fired for making an informed medical decision," Perepolkin continued.
The vaccine mandate impacting healthcare staff in B.C. was put in place in October 2021 by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, leading to 2,500 British Columbian healthcare workers—900 in the Interior Health region—being terminated. It is not known how many of those were lab staff. Less than two per cent of B.C. healthcare staff were terminated because of the mandate.
Dr. Henry said last week the vaccine mandate is staying in place for the foreseeable future, citing the possibility of a surge in cases in the winter.