Increased workload for Saskatchewan medical technicians jeopardizing health care: Report

The Saskatchewan government needs to take "immediate action" to fix the "crushing workload" and understaffing medical technicians and technologists face throughout the province, says the union representing these workers.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) released a report on the working conditions of medical technologists this week. The report, titled Under Pressure, was based on an online survey the union conducted last fall. Nearly 200 medical technologists in five provincial health regions participated. Respondents included medical laboratory technologists, combined laboratory and X-ray technicians, medical radiation technologists, pharmacy technicians and MRI technologists.

The survey asked about how workload levels were impacting their job performance and personal health.

The results paint a dire picture, revealing a stressed-out, exhausted workforce, who are concerned their working conditions are hurting patient care. Many report considering leaving the profession -- and, in some cases, the province.

"I felt it was worse than I thought it would be," said Cheryl Stadnichuk, a researcher with CUPE for more than 20 years who worked on the report.

Workers in both rural and urban centres reported feeling overwhelmed and under-supported in their jobs. More than 80 per cent of respondents said their workload had increased. But this has often happened without staff increasing. In some centres, the amount of staff has decreased. The number of medical laboratory technicians has dropped by 7 per cent since 2012. Yet, Saskatchewan's population has grown by 6 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Respondents consistently said they work through their breaks, and often come to work early or leave late to complete their jobs. There were also concerns about how often workers are called in for emergencies after shifts finish.

Respondents want more staff. The majority -- 65 per cent -- said they think having replacements for vacation and sick leave would help the problem. More than half -- 56 per cent -- said the minimum amount of staff should increase.

These concerns are especially important because the provincial government plans to merge regional health authorities into one. Things are going to be very "unsettled," said Stadnichuk. This will increase tensions in an already stressful field.

Technicians provide results that are crucial for patients receiving correct diagnoses. But they're concerned increased workloads will cause them to make mistakes.

One respondent said they've sometimes forgotten to double-check scans, causing patients to return for more. They also said they've forgotten to do some scans. Even experienced technicians reported making errors.

Stadnichuk said no respondents admitted to making serious mistakes.

"What we're concerned about is that these serious mistakes could happen if this continues," she said.

One respondent noted there's been an increase in doctors, but not medical technicians.

Stadnichuk echoed this concern. "You can't increase doctors who are ordering more tests and not have more staff to be able to do those tests."

This hurts interactions with patients. Respondents said they have been abrupt with patients, with one noting there is "no time for idle chit-chat." This is particularly important because people who need medical tests may already be anxious.

The report clearly shows a decline in technicians' health. Exhaustion was a common theme. One reported going "home exhausted and in a fog because I barely have time to think about what I am doing."

Workers noted difficulty sleeping, especially those on-call or those who are called back for emergencies. One said she gets called back every night. Another said that in a three-month period, there were only three days where they weren't called to come into work. One worker said the callbacks made them feel they were "married" to their job.

There's not always time to rest between shifts.

"If you have a bad night of call and you have to work the next day, you are almost like you are impaired," wrote one.

Many reported taking medication, in some cases for high blood pressure. Others reported chest pains, or frequent headaches and stomach aches, sometimes caused by the thought of going into work. One 26-year-old participant said that after three years on the job, she's developed a repetitive stress injury.

Medical technicians, 90 per cent of whom self-identified in the survey as women, said their personal lives are suffering, noting difficulties scheduling day care for their children because of unpredictable work, or being unable to attend their children's school activities. Some respondents said they were more likely to be irritable with their spouses or children, or unable to perform household duties.

This makes some consider leaving the profession. Nearly 80 per cent of participants said increased stress has negatively impacted staff morale. Technicians who used to love their jobs reported counting down the days until retirement.

"Our lab is on the point of collapse! Staff are giving up hope," wrote one participant, noting some colleagues are looking for work outside the province, or country.

Most technicians CUPE represents in Saskatchewan -- 65 per cent -- have full-time, permanent jobs. Another 18 per cent have part-time jobs, also permanent. But at least one part-time worker said in the survey they would not consider applying for a full-time job created by a colleague's upcoming retirement.

This trend is troublesome, considering the relatively young age of the workforce. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents were younger than 35. A similar number -- 43 per cent -- have worked in their current position for less than 10 years. Another 30 per cent have been in their positions for longer than 25 years and could be retiring soon.

"It's going to be really hard to recruit people when workloads are like this," said Stadnichuk. "(The government) really needs to have a plan in place, and they've got to be recruiting and putting the money into it now."

CUPE recommends in the report the government consult with front-line staff and take an audit of vacant staff positions and how many medical technicians are needed. The union wants the government to share the results of this audit with them. It also wants the government to give more money to hire medical technologists and technicians and revise its health human resources plan to prepare for the existing and upcoming shortage of technicians.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Image: Ellsworth AF

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