ADVOCATE: Medical Laboratory Professional Shortages in Remote First Nations Communities

By Lauren Hicks, Communications Administrator, MLPAO

This article was re-posted on National Indigenous People's Day, June 21, 2021.

“I have a story that I want to share with you about a young boy called Brodie Meekis. Brodie and his siblings came home from school in Sandy Lake with fevers and sore throats. The father took the children to the local nursing station and the boys were advised to take Tylenol and to rub their chests with Vicks. While the siblings slowly returned to health, Brodie did not and his health continued to worsen. There was no available appointment for at least two weeks. The 5-year-old later died of strep throat – a common bacterial infection that is easily cured with antibiotics when properly diagnosed,” explained Ovide Mercredi, the previous national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “This is an example of how important the services medical laboratory professionals provide to our communities are and how they can save lives.”

Mercredi is now the lead of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s (NAN) Health Transformation Initiative – a long term project that aims to bring the healthcare system in NAN territory under the authority of the First Nation itself. The initiative is in response to decades of systemic inequities and perpetual public health crises for NAN communities. However, these inequalities are not isolated to NAN territory. The majority of fly-in First Nations communities in northern Ontario face issues with resource allocation, equipment shortfalls and staffing. And the shortage of medical laboratory technologists and technicians felt across Ontario is only exacerbated in these isolated areas.

Nursing stations in northern Ontario’s remote First Nations communities are under the jurisdiction of Health Canada (Indigenous Services Canada) and are often understaffed, have no accreditation requirements and no official quality assurance protocol. As there are no medical laboratories near said stations, samples are flown to Sioux Lookout in order to run tests.

“There is always the possibility of losing a sample, samples becoming spoiled due to weather delays and slow communication between the lab and healthcare providers,” said Mercredi. “Ontario has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. That does not exist for First Nations communities. Equity of access is a big issue.”

The Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre (SLMHC) houses the lab that conducts tests for these fly-in communities. Founded as part of a four-party agreement between the federal and provincial governments, the town and NAN to amalgamate the segregated provincial and federally run hospitals, SLMHC opened its doors in 2010. The one-of-a-kind health center includes a ventilated smudging room, a traditional foods program and mandatory cultural awareness training for all new hires.

Currently, 65 to 70 per cent of the ISO Plus accredited laboratory’s total workload is allocated to running routine tests for nursing stations. The laboratory currently has a staff of 20 (six laboratory assistants and 14 technologists) trained in transfusion medicine, microbiology, chemistry and hematology.

The SLMHC also runs quality checks on point of care equipment for the northern nursing stations. Once a month, samples from glucose meters and HemoCues are run through the lab’s chemistry analyzer to ensure the results agreed within an acceptable percentage range.

Brenda Voth, the lab manager at SLMHC, says their laboratory only offers full time positions as individuals are unlikely to move to Sioux Lookout for a casual position. She went on to explain that they try to stay at the very top end of overstaffed to ensure vacation coverage and to avoid unnecessary overtime – but this is rarely the case for long.