Bendigo Health to lose microbiology lab

RELATED: Union says lab closure could put patients at risk

UPDATE Thursday: A spokeswoman for Australian Clinical Labs said urgent microbiology would continue to be performed on site at Bendigo while non-urgent microbiology tests would be redirected to the company’s 24-hour laboratory in Melbourne.

“We don’t expect there will be significant changes to turnaround times,” she said.

The spokeswoman said which services Bendigo Health chose to fund in either an on or off-site capacity was a commercial decision for the hospital.

“Outsourcing to Australian Clinical Labs provides the hospital with access to specialists and leading technologies it would not have access to if pathology was in-sourced,” she said.

The spokeswoman said ACL would work with the affected employees to find suitable redeployment within the organisation.

“We will have a clearer idea of the number of redundancies when the consultation period is completed in the next few weeks,” she said.

EARLIER: News the privately operated pathology services provider at Bendigo Health will close its microbiology lab at the hospital next month has been met with disbelief from health workers and the pathologists union.

Australian Clinical Labs told staff last week the company reviewed its regional laboratory sites and made the decision to centralise all routine microbiology testing currently performed in Bendigo to its premises in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton.

Seven full and part-time workers are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of the move.

Former pathology director at Bendigo Health, Vince Murdolo who now holds the same position at the Royal Hobart Hospital, is among those speaking out about what he calls “McDonald’s pathology” following the revelations staff who previously performed the tests in Bendigo were facing redundancies and their work transferred to Melbourne.

Dr Murdolo says he now holds serious concerns about the adequacy of pathology services provided to Bendigo Health by Australian Clinical Labs, to the point he would not feel comfortable seeking treatment there for himself or his family.

Dr Murdolo is concerned outsourcing the services will mean important observations could get “lost in the numbers”, resulting in critical clinical diagnoses that would have previously been picked up by a tight-knit local pathology team being missed.

“The difficult part is that if you don’t look, you don’t know that you’re missing things, so it’s difficult to measure the impact, so this is one of the ways that the system gets away with it,” he says.

“When I was there, we were doing microbiology on site, the samples were local. For example, we identified a a pattern of samples that were coming from a group of kids who all went to the same pool and we found they actually had cryptosporidium [a bacteria that can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness] and they were catching it from this swimming pool.

“Identifying those sorts of things is much easier if you’re doing it in a local environment rather than sending it to Melbourne where they have thousands of specimens from across the state.”

Another former worker, Trevor Dorman, who was a lab assistant at the facility until June last year, said if anything, microbiology services at the recently-completed hospital should be expanding.

“It’s a shocking sort of thing to lose from a brand new hospital, especially one of that size,” he said.

“Some of the microbiology staff have worked there for decades so it’s a hell of a lot of experience for the hospital to lose.”

The pathologists union, the Medical Scientists Association of Victoria, is even more trenchant in its criticism of the thinning of staff at the lab, which secretary Paul Elliott says will mean turnaround times for life-or-death tests will blow out, putting patient safety at risk.

Mr Elliott says when it comes to things like diagnosing potentially fatal infectious diseases like meningococcal, waiting for a test result to come back from Melbourne could have serious adverse effects for patients.

“It downgrades the range of services the pathologist can offer other clinical services in the hospital and as soon as you do that you put at risk patient safety,” he says.

Another source, who did not wish to be named, also expressed shock that pathology services in Bendigo were shrinking instead of growing, so soon after the new $630 million hospital opened, saying Bendigo “deserves better”.

“Immunocompromised patients, such as cancer patients and the elderly are most at risk from increases in turnaround times and it is without doubt that this decision will result in patient deaths over time,” they said.

“It’s simply not good enough that patients in Bendigo are not being given the highest quality of care because a private pathology provider has now walked away from delivering a critical pathology service.”

For its part, the MSAV lays the blame for the loss of local microbiology services squarely with the former state government, which Mr Elliott says made a mistake in moving from a public to a private model at Bendigo Health in 2012.

A Bendigo Health spokeswoman declined to answer a number of specific questions about the change in pathology services, saying only that the decision was “made by a private contractor with whom Bendigo Health has an ongoing relationship”.

“Their service provision is governed by an agreed set of performance indicators as set out in the contract,” she said.

But Dr Murdolo views the loss of microbiology services at Bendigo Health as indicative of a wider problem for the health sector, where privatisation will gradually “shave away” at services – raising alarm bells for hospitals throughout Australia.

“One of the reasons I’m speaking out is that I’m trying to protect all public pathology services,” he says.

“It’s not just about Bendigo, I know the detail of Bendigo because I worked there for such a long time, but this is about public pathology as a whole across the country.”

In 2012, when Bendigo Health announced the final decision to move towards a private provider had been made, despite opposition from Dr Murdolo and others, chief executive officer John Mulder assured the public there would be “no job losses for our staff and no loss of quality, decrease in service or additional costs to our community”.

Five years later, the source who spoke to the Bendigo Advertiser on condition of anonymity wants answers.

“It is time for the current acting CEO, [Peter Faulkner], and chairman of the board, Bob Cameron, to right the mistakes of their predecessor and reinstate an in-house public pathology department,” they said.

“Health is not about money, it is about people.”

ACL has been contacted for comment.