A group of Castlegar physicians is frustrated with the difficulty their patients are having accessing laboratory services and they want Interior Health (IH) to do something about it — now.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, crowded waiting rooms are no longer acceptable, so IH made changes to the laboratory procedures at the Castlegar and District Health Centre.
Effective the beginning of June, patients are now asked to call and book appointments for laboratory services. At the time IH said they would also still try to accommodate a limited number of walk-ins.
But according to the local physicians group, the system is not working.
The problem starts with making the phone call to book the appointment. The phone line is staffed by the same people doing all of the other tasks in the lab, rather than by a call centre or dedicated staff member. It is also only open five hours a day, and only on weekdays.
The physicians are repeatedly hearing from their patients about problems getting through to the phone line, sometimes having to call repeatedly for days just to schedule their appointment.
The second problem is that once they do get through, there is usually a wait of several more days for an appointment.
Dr. Ellen Smart says the lab was already consistently understaffed for the last year, even before COVID hit.
The physicians sent a letter to IH in which they state that they are in favour of the idea of appointment booking, but “the way it was set up is unwieldy and unsafe for patients.”
Doctors Ellen Smart, Tunde Sanuga, Meghan Jensen, Ranier Aukenbauer, Bbandama Makwati, Denis Thibodeau, Lisa Vasil, Andree-Anne Cromp, George Halse and Megan Taylor signed the letter.
In the letter, the physicians express their frustration that a phone booking system would be set up without setting up a person to answer that phone.
“This was completely foreseeable and there was a great deal of time in the early stages of COVID to come up with a much better plan.”
The physicians asked IH for a speedy resolution before “a patient dies a preventable death, the existing lab staff quits, or both.”
That letter was sent to IH on July 20 — and still nothing has changed.
Dr. Smart called the inaction “malignant neglect.”
“When you start getting lots of doctors writing letters, usually there is a problem,” said Smart.
“You would hope there is enough respect to include them.”
IH has announced that online appointment booking options are coming in the next month at four pilot sites, but Castlegar is not one of those sites.
But even if and when the option does come to Castlegar, Smart says it can’t replace having someone answering the phone — especially for urgent tests and patients who are not tech-savvy.
In a response letter to the physicians, IH acknowledges a long-term “human resource crisis”.
IH says it began looking for online appointment booking options towards the beginning of the pandemic and began working with a vendor. But, “After much back and forth, our preferred platform was deemed beyond Interior Health’s financial means and we had to begin again with a different vendor.”
In the letter, IH lab department head Launny Lowden said funding for staff to man the phones was sought.
“We sought approval to create a call centre, hire clerks or use volunteers to answer phones, but were constrained by funding, hiring policies, and union rules.”
Dr. Smart says this is where the the divide begins.
“Interior Health has to manage money, physicians are looking more at patient care.”
Castlegar News has reached out to Interior Health for a further response.