Nfld. & Labrador

MD's stress leave worsens St. John's pathology crunch

A pathologist at a St. John's-based health authority is taking stress leave, compounding problems in a department that has already come in for intense public scrutiny.

A pathologist at a St. John's-based health authority is taking stress leave, compounding problems in a department that has already come in for intense public scrutiny.

The physician's decision to seek leave follows the resignation of breast cancer pathologist Dr. Beverley Carter, who will be leaving her job in June.

Dr. Nash Denic, the chief of laboratory medicine with Eastern Health, said the work of pathologists — who analyze biopsies and other tests to diagnose disease — is already under intense strain.

"I'm very concerned [that] many more people might just decide to leave," Denic told CBC News.

He said the workload of pathologists has increased by about 20 per cent over the past four years, while staffing has dropped by about 30 per cent.

As well, the judicial inquiry focusing on flawed hormone receptor tests and a class action lawsuit certified in Newfoundland Supreme Court have both been adding to the stress that pathologists are feeling, Denic said.

"I myself am running beyond the limits as well, you know, so it definitely has [an] impact on my personal, physical and mental conditions," he said.

Carter's resignation means that six of 19 pathology positions will be vacant in June. As long as the other pathologist is on stress leave, the number of vacancies will be seven, and Denic said he does not know how long that might last.

"I count on him to come back," he said. "There's a lot of years before him to give to the patients, so I need for him really to recover completely."

Denic said more tissue samples will likely have to be sent out of the province for testing.

The judicial inquiry is examining what went wrong at a St. John's pathology lab between 1997 and 2005, when hundreds of inaccurate results were given to breast cancer patients.

Justice Margaret Cameron began hearing evidence in March, but to date little of the testimony has dealt with the lab itself. Instead, the inquiry to date has focused on how Eastern Health and government officials responded to the crisis when it became known in 2005.

However, the inquiry has been dealing with issues of resources at Eastern Health. Among the exhibits already presented into evidence is a 2006 letter, cosigned by Denic, sent to the then ministers of health and finance.

The letter said that "the pathologists in Newfoundland and Labrador feel undervalued, unappreciated and demoralized," because of inadequate staffing and pay.

"In particular, cancer care in the province could be significantly compromised. The malaise among our pathologists has reached a critical point and needs to be addressed without further delay," said the May 16, 2006 letter, which Denic — acting as the president of the Newfoundland Association of Pathologists — wrote with Robert Ritter, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association.

Documents released at the inquiry show that Treasury Board soon after responded by ordering a pathologist workload review, rather than immediately implementing a bonus for salaried pathologists.

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