Lab tests may move away from Timaru

ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 05/03/2014
diana scott
RAISING CONCERN: Geraldine GP Dr Diana Scott does not agree with a proposal to send microbiological samples from Timaru to Christchurch for testing.

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Getting a laboratory test result back within a day or two could soon be a thing of the past for South Canterbury patients, a Geraldine GP fears.

Southern Community Laboratories has proposed microbiology lab tests requested by the district's GPs be sent to Christchurch for testing. That move could extend the turnaround time on tests, Diana Scott said.

The Timaru Herald understands tests requested by GPs make up 70 per cent of all microbiology tests in South Canterbury - the other 30 per cent are requested through the hospital and would continue to be tested in Timaru.

If the proposal goes ahead, GP patients will have to wait up to three days to get their results back, instead of the usual one to two days.

The tests will include throat swabs, urine and faeces.

New Zealand Medical Laboratory Workers' Union delegate support officer Terry Leydon said the proposal would see 1.95 fulltime equivalent jobs disestablished in Timaru's microbiology department, equating to 40 per cent of existing staff. Other changes in the proposal, if implemented, would include the redundancy of one data entry position and other changes to the hours of work of all lab staff.

"Some [staff] are understandably a little shaken," he said.

Mr Leydon said staff had expressed their concerns about an increase in turnaround times.

The reason for the proposal was to ensure the service operated in a cost-effective and efficient manner, according to the proposal statement, Mr Leydon said.

Southern Community Laboratories Group chief executive Peter Gootjes said he did not anticipate a dramatic change to turnaround times if the proposal went ahead.

"The understanding I have, [is] the time for reporting the community-referred microbiology will be much the same as it has been, and we don't expect a deterioration of that."

GP spokesman Bruce Small said because the concept was only at the proposal stage, it was too early for him to comment.

"At this stage this is a document for consultation only so is, in fact, not happening. The points you raise are up for discussion so at this point I cannot answer."

A decision is expected to be made by Friday. If the proposal is implemented, tests could be sent to Christchurch from the start of May, Mr Leydon said.

Blenheim's Wairau Hospital also suffered similar cuts last year, with five job losses.

GP SOUNDS WARNING

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A concerned South Canterbury GP has spoken out following a proposal to send some microbiology samples to Christchurch for testing.

Geraldine GP Dr Diana Scott said the move, if it went ahead, would put patients at risk, causing more harm than good.

"The only thing this lab is doing is cost-cutting ... it's not thinking about quality of care, which is a shocker, really. My main concern is turnaround time, missing diagnosis, or not being able to treat in time."

The proposal would result in job losses in the "very experienced" Timaru Public Hospital micro department, she said.

"What will happen is all ‘raw' samples, eg throat swabs, urine [and] faeces, which arrive at the lab before 4.30pm, will be transported direct to Christchurch. The samples from this part of the day may have a reasonable turnaround."

However samples received after 4.30pm, which would be about 50 per cent of the community work, would be plated and incubated by lab staff in South Canterbury, she said. At 1.30pm the following day, after allowing enough time for incubation, those plates would be transported to Christchurch and would be read on the evening shift.

It would mean that, at the earliest, GPs would receive the results back the following morning, rather than the previous afternoon, which would have been the case if Timaru's microbiology department had processed them, she said.

Ultimately, in many cases, there would be a 72-hour turnaround before test results were received by South Canterbury GPs.

Dr Scott has highlighted her concerns in a letter to other GPs.

"I can see us missing important microbiological diagnoses altogether, because with ‘shortcuts' we will be misinformed," she wrote.

"Delays in reporting urinary tract infection sensitivities, eg we may not get the definitive result on a sample sent on Thursday till Monday ..."

She said the delay could result in some patients getting "best guess" therapy and ending up in hospital emergency departments and/or on intravenous medication.

"As a clinician I certainly feel vulnerable with the prospect of delayed microbiological diagnostics and am not at all happy about it, and its implications for our community."

- The Timaru Herald

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