"We are depleted": BC health worker details traumatizing impacts of staff shortages

Dec 9 2021, 10:23 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Brooke Carter, who is a medical laboratory technologist working in the BC public healthcare system

In my line of work I hear a lot of platitudes about resilience. But I think what we need to be talking about is compensation.

I work as a medical laboratory technologist at a major hospital. My colleagues and I are responsible for conducting the careful work of diagnostic testing like bloodwork and biopsies. We’re the ones who figure out if you have hepatitis, cancer, or nothing at all. We also do the testing for COVID-19.

In the lab, compensation is a biochemical term. We use it to describe events such as your kidneys’ ability to maintain your body’s pH levels, despite your electrolytes being out of balance, or your body’s ability to tolerate an alarmingly low level of haemoglobin when the decrease has been gradual over time. It’s why, for example, you fainted while making dinner, you suddenly find yourself in an emergency, and now the doctor is ordering lab tests.

You may never meet your lab team, but we are quite concerned about you. Some of the numbers we are seeing in your bloodwork are ominously low, and they are inconsistent with your bright demeanour while you were chatting with the phlebotomist.

The whole medical team will help you, whether you need to get your blood sugar sorted out or get a transfusion. Along with dozens of other health science professionals like respiratory therapists, diagnostic imaging technologists, sonographers, physiotherapists, and social workers, we’re the people who keep hospitals running 24/7.

And we’ll help you quickly, because we know that you could not have gone on much longer like this. Your body is very good at pressing on until it can’t, and my colleagues and I are very good at making sure that you get thorough, accurate, and expedient diagnostics.

Until we can’t.

There are severe shortages of specialized health professionals like laboratory technologists in BC; shortages that have made you wait a little longer for a test result and have caused physical and moral injury to us.

We are exhausted. We are depleted. We are traumatized by our inability to keep up.

The shortages were bad before the pandemic. Now they are at levels that force hospitals to shut down entire emergency departments. My colleagues and I, working overtime in the lab, time and again, have been brought to tears when we physically cannot get those stat results out any faster, knowing the desperation of those waiting for them. We are working at a pace that has us terrified that we might make a mistake.

This was never about resilience at all, but simply about eventuality: the thing that happens when we can no longer compensate.

It’s time to stop discussing hospital capacity only by the number of beds, or even the number of doctors and nurses.

Don’t get me wrong. Doctors and nurses are my colleagues, but each bed represents a myriad of healthcare professions that depend on each other. If any member of that team can no longer provide care, that bed is as good as not there. Doctors and nurses are important, but without the rest of us, there is no healthcare system at all.

It’s time to stop talking about resilience. We will all run ourselves into the ground for the sake of our patients, and our whole system has banked on our willingness to do so. We’ve done that. We’re there. We’re buried. We can no longer compensate without adequate resources.

That means dealing with problems that have been growing for years before the pandemic hit. BC had the lowest number of laboratory technologists per capita in the country prior to COVID-19. And the lowest number of respiratory therapists too. How many will be left after this is over?

In part, this is about overdue investments in attracting new professionals. Job postings at my hospital and others across BC go unfilled for years because our post-secondary systems are turning away students competing for few spaces. In part, it’s also about holding on to the professionals we have. That means providing more opportunities for leadership positions and career opportunities for healthcare professionals who aren’t doctors and nurses.

But it’s also time to talk seriously about compensation. Not just in the sense we talk about it in the lab, but in its common meaning: salary. Healthcare professionals, like a lot of public employees, have made do with austerity wage increases for years now. As it now stands, many specialized health professionals living in BC are paid much less than their colleagues in other provinces. And that’s not even factoring in the cost of housing. No wonder so many talk openly of moving away.

Money isn’t everything, it’s true. I love my work. I’m proud being part of the healthcare team at this moment of crisis. But it’s time to be realistic.

We’ll keep pressing on.

Until we can’t.

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