December 11, 2023

‘Perilous’: Medical lab workforce facing ‘tsunami’ of staff resignations

Watch: The medical lab workforce is facing a "tsunami" of staff resignations.

Experts are sounding the alarm over the state of New Zealand’s medical laboratory workforce, describing it as “perilous”. 

The New Zealand Institute is warning if nothing changes, it could result in delays or fewer services for Kiwis.

Lab technicians and scientists are an essential part of New Zealand’s healthcare system, running more than 200,000 tests a day.

But that could soon be about to change.

“The state of the workforce is perilous,” said Terry Taylor, the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president.

Staff numbers are dwindling, too.

“It’s facing a tsunami of experienced senior scientists that are retiring and leaving,” APEX Union advocacy lead David Munro said.

That’s because staff are underpaid and undervalued and attracting new scientists and technicians is proving extremely difficult, Munro said.

“They come into a profession that’s so strained, that there’s no capacity to retain them, the salaries are simply not good enough. When you’ve done a four-year degree – the prospect of laboratory science is just no longer appealing.”

“Our technicians are the poorest paid medical health practitioners there are,” Taylor added. “A lot can earn more in a supermarket than they can in a laboratory – which is really an indictment on our health sector”.

Lab workers were under intense pressure during the pandemic, as they processed a huge influx of COVID-19 tests.

In just one year – between 2021 and 2022 – there was an almost seven percent drop in staffing numbers.

Taylor predicts that will continue to decrease and warns Kiwis could feel the ripple effect.

“It’s going to reflect in waiting times and diagnostic times… we’ll have to start deciding what services we can and can’t provide in this country,” Taylor said. 

He’s spent seven years pushing for change. Last May, he presented a workforce crisis document to Parliament, desperately calling for action.

He said little has changed – but the Health Minister has said there’s good progress. 

“The Workforce Taskforce is working quickly and has established a number of working groups to address these issues. Pay equity is already underway as unions have signed up to processes with Te Whatu Ora,” Ayesha Verrall told Newshub. “The Government announced last week that the broader laboratory workforce is included on the Immigration Green List. Longer term, Manatū Hauora has taken the lead in pulling the broader Med Lab Scientists group together to build a more sustainable workforce, and one that reflects our population.

“Progressing workplace conditions sit with established employment bargaining processes. Contracts for laboratory services are still held at a local level and this will be reviewed as the health reforms progress,” Dr Verrall said.

But Taylor said that progress needed to happen years ago. 

“I really do feel 2023 will be the year where we really regret how we’ve treated our pathology workforce.”

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