Patients suffer long, fearful wait for blood test results
Health ministry blames shortage of pathologists
Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Millions of dollars have been spent by the health ministry to improve conditions at the National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) in downtown Kingston, but it is still taking many months before the results of doctor-ordered tests are ready.
This has forced some persons to dig deep into their pockets to pay private labs to conduct the tests, while those who can't afford the cost of these private labs can only pray that death does not come before the results are ready.
Since 2011, the NPHL and the Blood Bank have benefited from a $21-million donation for improvement work of $60 million allocated by the National Health Fund (NHF).
But although the premises looks good from the outside, operations inside leave much to be desired as it is still taking an average of six months to get the results of some tests, while private labs, including one which has set up a base at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH), are returning results of these tests in two to five days.
Last week, the health ministry admitted to delays and blamed it on a shortage of pathologists.
According to the ministry, through an agreement with the Cuban government, it has been strengthening the human resource capacity of the NPHL.
"Since 2012, three Cuban pathologists have been employed to process histopathology samples. There has also been training of lab personnel. This is a part of overall efforts to strengthen the capacity of the lab and reduce the turn-around time for the testing of samples and producing results," the ministry said in response to questions from The Sunday Gleaner.
But that means very little to one man, whose 14-year-old daughter was admitted to the KPH in March for nine days after she suffered a still-unexplained seizure. She was released from hospital without doctors being sure about what caused the seizure as the lab took four months to return results.
"I had to keep going back. Nobody called to say if the results were ready. I made about four trips plus numerous calls before I finally got the results," declared a disappointed Jonathan Brown.
"The attending doctor at KPH was really interested in what was happening to my daughter, who had this unexplained seizure. But he was frustrated because he couldn't get back the results either," added Brown.
The NPHL, which is tasked with performing a variety of tests that are relevant to health care, consists of eight units with 180 employees, and this does not include the Blood Bank.
All eight units seem to be the moving at a snail's pace, but the health ministry is confident that things will improve as it embarks on a modernisation process.
"There are no plans to shut down the NPHL. Thousands of tests are carried out routinely and results distributed on behalf of doctors and patients. Several health professionals and patients, therefore, benefit from the operations of NPHL," declared the ministry as it argued that its rehabilitation plan should bear fruit by 2017.
According to the ministry, some of the plans are already being implemented and the laboratory has been a beneficiary of the expertise of several international and local agencies.
Part of the redevelopment was a general rehabilitation of the lab's histopathology suite and renovation of the old incinerator building to store specimens. That cost was estimated at $6 million.
The lab was also seeking to procure and install two new industrial-size autoclaves at a cost of over $10.6 million and the procurement of a new Vitech machine at a cost of $13 million for use in the diagnosis of various types of microbiological agents and controlling infection. These should have been in place by the end of February 2014 but up to late last week there was no confirmation if that timeline had been met.
Participation in the Caribbean Community, Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality, and Laboratory Quality Management Systems Stepwise Improvement Process should also lead to a further improvement in the operation of the labs.
Name changed on request.