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.”