New Brunswick has backed away from a controversial plan to merge all hospital testing laboratories into a single system with a main provincial lab at Moncton’s Dr. Georges-L. Dumont University Health Centre.
The Department of Health has decided the plan, which was strongly opposed by Dumont doctors at an extraordinary news conference in late June, is “invalid,” according to a Vitalité Health Network official.
The three-phase “integrated medical laboratory system model” called for all outpatient blood samples to be shipped to Fredericton and Bathurst for testing and for the consolidation of most microbiology testing at the Dumont.
Hematology and chemistry samples from the Dumont were to be sent to the Moncton Hospital, and all pathology-related services done out of the Moncton Hospital and Saint John Regional Hospital.
It was designed to head off an expected shortage of laboratory staff, Health Minister Bruce Fitch has said.
But about 280 medical and dental staff at the Dumont argued the plan could could increase the time it takes to get results and endanger the health of their patients, including cancer patients.
“The department decided that the plan in question was invalid and that we would return to a more structured process,” Yves Goudreau, interim vice-president of patient flow and logistics at Vitalité, said in French.
Instead, a provincial laboratory committee has been created to look at the optimization of the laboratories, said Goudreau.
Goal of integrated, modernized system remains
The Department of Health “remains committed to the optimization of laboratory services” and planning efforts with Horizon and Vitalité continue, said department spokesperson Sean Hatchard, noting it was the subject of a discussion at a meeting of the Health System Collaboration Council on Dec. 11.
“The goal of the project — a provincially integrated and modernized clinical laboratory system — remains the same … even if the path to get there has changed,” he said in an emailed statement.
“Work completed in earlier stages of the project, and at stakeholder engagement sessions, helped identify several items to address in order to get the full benefits envisioned for laboratories across the province,” said Hatchard.
The regional health authorities and the department will focus on key areas in the coming month, such as “the need for a single provincial transportation system, a solution to help connect laboratory information systems, planning for the repatriation of tests back to New Brunswick where feasible, and standardized terminology,” he said.
An executive committee has been created to oversee the project, while the new provincial laboratory optimization committee will lead the work. Both committees include representatives from Horizon and Vitalité as well as the department.
Consultations with stakeholders, including physicians and laboratory staff, will continue, Hatchard said.
“Patient care remains the top priority for all partners involved,” he added.
The New Brunswick Medical Society is “pleased that the government and Regional Health Authorities have taken into consideration the clinical perspectives of health-care professionals regarding their lab modernization initiative,” president Dr. Paula Keating said in an emailed statement.
“We support the modernization of our health systems, including our labs, but we need to ensure that such major changes are led with much more clinical engagement and consultation.”
Doctors like cardiologist Luc Cormier, who spoke out against the plan, feared that delays in obtaining results caused by moving routine tests could affect patient care.
“These were a lot of routine tests, but also very specialized tests that were going to be moved” out of the Dumont, said Cormier, who served as president of the now-defunct Dumont laboratory safeguarding committee, created in June 2023.
“We know that we have an oncology centre and all the pathology and hematology techniques which are very specialized and which we have developed over the years and were going to be lost,” he said in French.
“Are there going to be certain exchanges for projects that are more easily centralized, where deadlines are less critical perhaps, I don’t know, but the project as it was initially proposed is not retained.”
Vitalité expressed concerns
The decision comes after Vitalité analyzed the plan and conducted internal consultations last summer and conveyed is fears to the department, according to Goudreau.
“We will not use optimization methods that would have an impact on the health of patients in New Brunswick, not as long as I am here,” he said.
Vitalité was also worried about the plan’s impact on its ability to retain, recruit and train, said Goudreau.
“It’s certain that if they remove everything that Dumont has and send it elsewhere, it has an impact.”
This loss of regional expertise would been counterproductive, said Cormier, when the objective of modernizing medical laboratories is to respond to human resources challenges.