There is a shortage of practicing medical laboratory technologists in Ontario. Image: Edward Jenner/Pexels
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There are not enough medical laboratory technologist graduates to replace retirees

Ontario hospitals are in the throes of a Medical Laboratory Technologist (MLT) shortage. 

Since September 2020, the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario (MLPAO), has called on the provincial government to help increase the amount of working MLTs. 

In a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the MLPAO explains that 70 per cent of Ontario laboratories were short-staffed from the beginning of the pandemic. As a result of the shortage, Ontario MLTs are now responsible for the completion of at least 78,000 COVID-19 tests per week on top of regular duties.

MLTs are responsible for the identification of diseases in patient tissues, blood, and fluid samples. These tests allow doctors to accurately diagnose and treat patients. 

MLTs specialize in one of five fields including, clinical microbiology where they study parasites and bacteria, hematology where they identify diseases in blood cells, transfusion medicine where they identify blood types and conduct blood compatibility tests, histology where they prepare tissue samples for disease detection, and clinical chemistry where they analyze blood and fluid samples for chemicals, drugs, and hormones. 

“The main issue right now is that MLTs are overworked and they’re stressed and there’s a percentage that contemplate early retirement,” explained Michelle Hoad, CEO of the MLPAO. 

As a result of the shortage, 86 per cent of technologists have experienced burnout after a year of intense COVID-19 testing.

“For 15 years [we have] asked for assistance and they’ve never fixed the problem,” said Hoad. 

“Now that we’re in a pandemic, you would think that now is the time for the government to do something, because COVID-19 testing is done by MLTs — but no.” 

Origins of Ontario’s MLT shortage 

This labour shortage stems from two main issues. First, the technologists are retiring at alarming rates and there are not enough MLT graduates to replace them. 

“Forty-three per cent of practicing MLTs are eligible to retire in the next four to eight years,” said Hoad. Thirty-seven per cent are contemplating early retirement, and 44 per cent are considering stress leave.” 

Second, there are not enough Ontario MLT programs, nor are there enough student placement opportunities. 

Given the fact that only 157 students graduated from Ontario MLT programs in 2020, Hoad finds the situation alarming. 

Looking at the current landscape, “there is an immediate need for 245 MLTs across the province,” according to the MLPAO

There are not enough MLT graduates “because the college programs can only take-in so many students… In fact, every MLT program in Ontario currently has a waitlist.”  

One of those five programs is offered at Cambrian College in Sudbury whose program only accepts 64 students per year.

At this same college, only 35 to 40 of MLT students are expected to graduate yearly, a 100 per cent of whom receive jobs in their field. These graduates are, therefore, in short supply but high demand. 

To increase the size of Cambrian’s MLT program, “We would certainly welcome [more funding] … given the current shortage and the vital role [they] play in the health care system,” said June Raymond, the dean of Cambrian’s Health Sciences and Emergency Services. 

Additionally, Raymond supports the MLPAO’s efforts to raise awareness about the MLT shortage.

“I certainly agree with the MLPAO plan. [This group] is actively seeking feedback on [how to] increase clinical placements to support …. students in MLT education programs across the province,” said Raymond. 

Like Cambrian, St. Lawrence College in Kingston has a fairly low acceptance rate for prospective MLT students. 

“We accept about 60 students every year. But we get at least three to five times the amount of applicants,” said Robin Thompson-McAvoy, the academic coordinator of the Medical Laboratory Science program. 

According to Thompson-McAvoy, these programs have low acceptance rates because there are not enough Ontario MLTs to train students during their placements. 

Thus, even for students who are accepted into the program, “there doesn’t seem to be as many placements for them as there used to be,” said Thompson-McAvoy. 

“Medium-sized hospitals used to be able to train students. But now, not all medium-sized hospitals engage in the clinical disciplines students need to for training,” she explained. 

“So, larger hospitals must take-on more students … which I assume increases the workloads of MLTs responsible for training.” 

According to Hoad, these structural issues cannot be solved if the government does not prioritize the technicnologists. 

“MLTs are not seen as a priority in healthcare … the lab has always been hidden,” Hoad explained. 

“If a patient goes to the hospital, they’ll get registered by a nurse and then they’ll see a doctor. MLTs are never a focus because [patients don’t see the work they do].” 

“They’re hidden heroes, because nobody hears them and nobody sees them. Yet, a technologist finds out, before anyone else, what is wrong with a patient.”

Through their efforts, the MLPAO hopes the government will join laboratory professionals, educators, and employers to form a plan to eliminate Ontario’s MLT labour shortage.