Plan to close medical lab further privatization of health care, says P.E.I. Opposition

A change in how the P.E.I. analyzes pap tests is being described as a "huge step forward" by Health PEI, but the Official Opposition describes it as the further privatization of health care in Prince Edward Island.

Health PEI says closure is part of proposal to improve screening for cervical cancer

The change would lead to the closure of the lab at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, says Health PEI.

The Official Opposition describes it as the further privatization of health care in Prince Edward Island.

Health PEI says it would be a "huge step forward" in preventing cervical cancer in the province.

And the province's health minister says he'll come back with a response once he has more information.

Opposition health critic Trish Altass brought fresh charges forward in the legislature Wednesday, suggesting the P.E.I. government plans to privatize another aspect of health care delivery.

Green MLA Trish Altass is concerned about the loss of ability to do testing on the Island. (Province of P.E.I.)

This time, she said the province plans to shut down its cytology lab at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, sending tests the lab currently processes — pap tests, biopsies of tumours and other tests to detect cancer — to a private lab in Ontario starting in October 2022.

"Privatizing health care services to an off-Island company will not only result in job losses here on P.E.I., but will also be a loss of control over the timing and quality of a critical and essential service," Altass said during question period.

"The cytology lab plays a key role in detecting several cancers, precancerous changes and other conditions. Losing the cytology lab here means that we would lose the ability for same-day short turnaround results for emergency situations."

Health Minister Ernie Hudson seemed not to know what Altass was referring to, first linking her questions to an earlier debate on whether the province has privatized management of mobile mental health units, before repeating multiple times that he would look into the situation and report back.

Part of plan to improve screening, says Health PEI

Health PEI later revealed the plan to close the cytology lab is part of a proposal which would see the province switch to a new type of screening program for human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.

The agency said the proposal hasn't yet been approved for funding by government.

Currently, the province screens women through pap tests processed at the cytology lab. Under the proposal, the screening program would switch to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — similar to the tests used to detect COVID-19.

The change will mean a huge improvement in testing, says Dr. Michael Gardam. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Health PEI's chief operating officer Dr. Michael Gardam said the new tests are more sensitive and able to detect HPV at an earlier stage, and would represent "a huge step forward for women on P.E.I." with regards to the prevention of cervical cancer.

However, in an email, a spokesperson for Health PEI said the plan would remove most of the pap tests processed by the cytology lab, and the remaining work for the lab would not be enough for staff to maintain their competency levels. 

"Therefore, sending the [remaining] tests off Island for processing will be necessary," the email said.

Health PEI said staff at the cytology lab would be transferred to other duties. Gardam said the new PCR tests would be processed on P.E.I.

Delayed tests

After Altass was advised of the plan to change how the province screens for HPV she said she was still concerned about the planned closure of the cytology lab, which she said would leave P.E.I. as the only province in the country without one.

She said when the lab sent some samples off-Island for processing on a trial basis, some samples were lost or damaged, leading to delays of up to a month in obtaining results.

Altass also expressed worries that closing the lab could make it harder for the province to recruit health care workers.

Health Minister Ernie Hudson says he will return to the legislature with more information. (Province of P.E.I.)

"To remove the lab completely would really be a loss to our health care system," she said.

"The last thing we need to be doing is removing services from our health care system when we are struggling to recruit and retain health care professionals."

Hudson assured the house this was not part of a plan to privatize health care on the Island.

"Let me be perfectly clear: this government is not privatizing the delivery of health care services," he said.

He said he would return with more information.

More from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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