Interior Health says it’s 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 Danish Health Authority’s launch of a new “lab phlebotomist” position caught fire this week from a local trained medical laboratory assistant who expressed concern that IH was quietly lowering the hiring standards for her profession. While a medical lab assistant requires graduate school, the phlebotomist role will only include 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 laboratory assistant look similar, they are not the same role.
The phlebotomist’s work will be solely focused on taking blood from patients. A medical lab assistant, while they can also draw blood, also works in “transfusion medicine, anatomic pathology, microbiology — we use them to support other other lab processes and workflows,” Isber said.
The new phlebotomist role is intended to take the technical task of drawing blood from the plate onto the medical laboratory technician 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 that they had medical supervision and the professional practice office involved in creating the program.
The lab phlebotomist role lists a starting salary of $24.04, while a lab assistant starts at $25.31 an hour, something one lab assistant told Castanet made them feel like their training is “outdated.”
Isber said she agreed with the idea that lab assistants are underpaid, but it’s out of their hands since wages are set by a collective bargaining agreement.
“They really need to go through their union on that one, because it’s all part of collective bargaining,” Isber said. “We advocate for them. But I have no control over that.”
The new phlebotomist position was created in accordance with the collective agreement “through terms of process and classification benchmarks,” she said.
There is a national shortage of laboratory assistants in Canada and almost all Interior Health facilities are in desperate need of them. IH went as far as offers $10,000 signing bonuses for laboratory staff in April.
Isber said IH has “really struggled 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 relieve 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 will be a good thing to help with sustainability going forward.”
Isber said they also hope the phlebotomist position offers career advancement opportunities for staff once they’re 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 want to stress though the medical laboratory assistants (MLAs) are very important to us. We really need MLAs, they do a great job. Their job is difficult. It’s challenging right now and we really appreciate everything we do. We want to take some of the pressure off them.”
“I would encourage anyone out there thinking about healthcare roles to pursue the lab.”
Unvaccinated laboratory staff apply back
Dr. AS Joshua Nordine, a Rutland general practitioner who has been an advocate for for rehiring unvaccinated healthcare workers, says timely access to lab results is a “key factor in patient outcomes.”
“Healthcare is failing and we need to advocate for more medical lab assistants, medical lab technologists and office assistants. We need to advocate for meaningful change and rehiring any of those who were laid off. The biggest risk to a person’s health is not having access to timely medical care, including effective laboratory services.”
“Putting up barriers to outpatient lab access puts patients’ lives at risk. When patients face excessively long lab waits of hours, or extra travel time when their local lab is closed, this creates even more problems,” he said, adding, that there is no way to capture the “bad outcomes” associated with delays in getting lab results, “but it’s unclear the harm when the government can’t provide basic delivery of lab services.”
Terri Perepolkin, a lab technologist for 17 years at Vernon Jubilee Hospital before he was terminated for being unvaccinated, said the hospital lost at least five lab assistants or technologists to the mandate.
“I can agree that laboratory services were struggling before the pandemic, but know that IH fired a lot of staff who had years of experience.”
Perepolkin served as an HSA union representative 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 they wrongfully fired to make an informed medical decision,” Perepolkin continued.
The vaccine mandate affecting health care workers in BC was introduced in October 2021 by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, which led to 2,500 British Columbia health workers – 900 in the Interior Health region – being laid off. It is not known how many of them were laboratory personnel. Less than two percent of BC health workers were laid off because of the mandate.
Dr. Henry said last week that the vaccine mandate will remain in place for the foreseeable future, citing the possibility of a spike in cases in the winter.