A citizens group is requesting Island Health to reinstate clinical pathology testing, and to hire a third general pathologist at the Campbell River Hospital.
The group — Citizens For Quality Health Care — has collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition, which North Island MLA Claire Trevena has presented at the B.C. Legislature.
The petition also calls for ‘an independent investigation into the apparent conflict of interest between VIHA (Island Health) and VICPCC (Vancouver Island Clinical Pathology Consulting Corporation).’
“They were able to negotiate a contract with the health authority to get all the clinical pathology analysis for the entire Island,” said Barb Biley, the Comox Valley representative of Citizens For Quality Health Care. “So instead of the work being done by general pathologists in local hospitals, everything is shipped off to Victoria. So you have an immediate increase in turnaround time by virtue of the fact that you’re not testing in the Campbell River hospital. You’re sending to Victoria, and not sending every five minutes, but once or twice a day.”
If a local doctor has a question for a pathologist, or if a lab tech needs to consult with a pathologist, Biley said they no longer have a person on site with whom they can consult. They now have to contact someone in Victoria.
“And sometimes when they phone Victoria, they’re told they should send an email. It breaks the continuity and the collaboration that’s required between staff.”
According to Biley, Island Health says patients are better served because tests are analyzed by specialists, not general pathologists.
“This is not true,” she said. “All the routine testing, that is the bulk of the work of a community hospital like ours, is better done by a general pathologist who has a broad range of knowledge.”
Island Health executive medical director Dr. David Robertson said routine testing continues to be conducted at local hospitals.
“That has not changed at all,” he said. “What has changed is the process of interpretation by a pathologist. Some tests we do in small numbers and they get concentrated, some tests we send to Vancouver, very few. All the urgent ones are still being done locally.”
Island Health says it reviewed turnaround times for clinical pathology results, comparing data from when it was handled by Campbell River pathologists (prior to April 2019) and after moving to interpretation by the VICPCC. Results showed turnaround times to be the same or better. For the most commonly performed test, times are about 12 hours faster.
Robertson notes the machines are run by technologists, not the pathologists.
“The test itself is still done locally. We have moved towards a process, progressively, of this being done by people who are more and more highly trained and qualified in that field.”
This trend has been happening for decades, Robertson added.
“This is a slow, progressive move away from general pathology. On Vancouver Island, we have pursued that, because we believe that is the way laboratory services are moving…For those general pathologists, the scope of the work they do has decreased with this move of interpretation down to the south Island. We have not ruled out, at all, bringing some of that work back or having it done in GO1 (North Island).”
As for the conflict of interest, Robertson said the head of the lab, at the time when Island Health developed a contract with VICPCC, had been a clinical pathologist.
“Within Island Health, we recognize when we negotiate any contracts with any group, the leadership within that specialty is necessarily going to be someone who will be affected by the contract that we negotiate. We are confident, in recognizing that, that we ensure that conflict never becomes real. That particular potential conflict has been investigated by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and they expressed no concern about it.”
Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard said the aforementioned five-year contract is up for review in March.
“It’s going to be reviewed, because the intention is that the best quality of health care services that can be provided to North Island are actually being delivered,” she said. “I’m hopeful that the people that are concerned about it have raised it. Therefore, I expect the review will be able to answer people’s concerns.”
Citizens For Quality Health Care is planning a town hall meeting in the new year in Campbell River to ‘further inform and plan.’
“There may well be something in the Comox Valley as well,” Biley said.
“People are not as well informed in the Comox Valley, because it hasn’t happened here yet. So now’s the time to stop it from going any further.”
The Courtenay hospital has three clinical pathologists.