Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare (MAHC) has restored a regular night shift in its medical laboratories at the Huntsville and Bracebridge hospitals. This is a victory for viable community hospitals. It is also another example of the chaos caused by the government’s artificial prohibition on hospital labs performing medical laboratory work for community patients, for example, patients of family doctors.
The Huntsville and Bracebridge sites were on the cusp of a mini trend among small hospitals in Ontario replacing some in-hospital laboratory services with point-of-care-testing (POCT).* After two years’ experience the MAHC is reversing this policy and reinstating a regular laboratory night shift removing the need for most POCT.
MAHC’s Executive Officer for Diagnostic and Ambulatory Services gave two reasons for expanding their laboratory hours: 1) the savings from the switch to POCT were less than anticipated; and 2) the physicians complained about a decrease in quick accurate lab results with the reduced laboratory hours.
The recent increase in hospital mergers, regionalization and budget cuts has accelerated the trend to reduced laboratory hours in small and rural hospitals. Laboratories are often put at the top of the list when hospitals consider what services to cut.
Underlying these pressures is the reduction in laboratory volume, and income, faced by many hospitals due to the government’s decades long drive to ensure that all laboratory work for patients outside of hospitals is done in private for-profit labs. As harmful as this policy has been for all hospitals it is particularly devastating and irrational in smaller communities.
When community lab work is shipped out of these communities to centralized for-profit laboratories many of the smaller hospitals find it hard to justify full laboratory hours and a broad range of tests. As well as reducing access for community patients, cut backs in hospital laboratories have reduced services for inpatients and increased the cost to the overall health care budget.
MAHC was very much at the center of this misguided and ideological Ministry of Health policy. The Bracebridge and Huntsville hospitals were part of a pilot project program that funded small hospitals to process community work. A review of this program found that they performed the work for twenty-two dollars per community patient while the for-profit laboratories cost thirty-three dollars. Yet the government ended the pilot projects in 2007. The main reason given was to bring all hospitals into compliance with the government policy that mandated community work be processed by for-profit corporations. (Reference: RPO Management Consultants, “Laboratory Pilot Projects Review: Final Report,” Ontario Ministry of Health, March 31, 2008.)
It was after the ending of the pilot project program that MAHC attempted to meet decreased revenue by shifting some of the hospitals laboratory work to more POCT testing. It is now clear that that change did not improve patient care or save money.
The message in this story is that vital accessible small and rural hospitals need to maintain necessary medical services. The government needs to fund these services and allow communities the flexibility to maximize their use of health care resources. In this case, it means allowing hospitals to process community lab work, but it extends to all medical services.
Congratulations to MAHC for providing more comprehensive laboratory services to its patients. It is now time for the Ministry of Health to fund this needed hospital program and to change its policies to allow integrated, accessible, cost-effective medical laboratories.
*Point of Care Testing (POCT) is medical diagnostic testing performed outside the clinical laboratory in close proximity to where the patient is receiving care. POCT is typically performed by non-laboratory personnel, usually nurses, and the results are used for clinical decision-making. POCT devices are often ‘hand held’ or may be small portable analyzers. POCT is generally more expensive than in lab testing and quality assurance requires through protocols and skilled maintenance. POCT tests available include blood glucose, urine dipsticks, blood gases, chemistry, hematology, coagulation, cardiac markers, and pregnancy tests.