Christchurch patients could wait longer to find out if they have cancer after the number of pathologists in a community lab halved in five months.
Canterbury South Community Laboratories (SCL) recently warned general practitioners and private surgeons of delays in processing tissue test results due to the shortage.
“As of Monday, May 10, we will only have three pathologists available when the workload requires six pathologists,” said a letter from CEO Peter Gootjes and Medical Director Dr. Peter Fitzgerald on May 12.
The company would lose another pathologist in August, the letter said.
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“We expect a backlog to build up with delays in turnaround times.”
Gootjes said the decision by the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) not to renew a contract for community laboratory services when it expires in July 2022 resulted in resignations and made it impossible to recruit pathologists.
A pathologist from the United States withdrew his candidacy after learning the contract would end in mid-2022, he said.
In December, the Canterbury Board of Health said community laboratory services would be provided by its own laboratory, Canterbury Health Laboratories (CHL), from July 2022.
CHL has previously provided pathology services to public hospitals in Christchurch.
The decision had exacerbated the national shortage of pathologists, Gootjes said.
The usual timeframe for test results was four to five days, but it could reach over 10 days or more if left unchecked, Gootjes said.
“It will gradually get worse and potentially have clinical effects, which is why we have informed the referees,” said Gootjes.
He said staff tried to prioritize cases that seemed urgent, but that was not always possible.
“There will be some that don’t seem as urgent and can be, because we just don’t know until we’ve looked at them all.”
Gootjes said the company asked CHL to take over 50 percent of the workload from May 10 because it did not have enough staff to handle it, but was told that CHL could only do 20 percent.
CDHB chief executive Peter Bramley said the CHL had “a full complement” of pathologists and was actively recruiting more.
He said CHL had started handling “some” of Canterbury SCL’s cases and planned to do more “in the near future”. He did not specify what proportion CHL was doing.
The turnaround time for reports from all labs was “constantly monitored” and no concerns had been reported so far, Bramley said.
The president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Aotearoa in New Zealand and Christchurch breast cancer surgeon Phillipa Mercer said local surgeons were very concerned about the situation.
“Biopsies will be done, lumps will be taken… and the result will indicate the next step, and we obviously want to let the patient know.
“They can be reassured because it’s benign, or it tells them that they need additional treatment or surgery, and so delays in this area cause delays for the patient in continuing care. . “
Canterbury Charity Hospital founder and surgeon Phil Bagshaw said staff told him some results are taking longer to get.
The hospital sent biopsies of tissue taken during colonoscopies from polyps on the wall of the intestine to be tested “all the time.”
In many cases, surgeons couldn’t tell if they were benign, malignant, or the type of polyps that could become malignant, he said.
Bowel cancers were generally very slow growing, so a longer wait for test results was unlikely to affect the patient’s result.
However, Bagshaw said the timing of the test results may affect the results of other more aggressive cancers.
Christchurch GP and New Zealand Medical Association representative Vanessa Weenink said GPs need to know if there will be any delays in results, so they can inform patients.
She was not aware of the delays so far.
Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton said the senior doctors’ union supports setting up in-house community laboratory services, but more funding is needed.
“We expect significant investments in the CHL to ensure facilities and personnel are appropriate.”