The Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital Board is continuing to press for general pathology services at North Island Hospitals in Courtenay and Campbell River. Black Press file photo

‘Bad blood’ over pathology issue, says Island Health medical director

Regional hospital district board pushes for pathology service in Courtenay, Campbell River

The Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital District (CSRHD) has added its voice to the calls supporting general pathology services at the North Island Hospital campuses in Campbell River and the Comox Valley.

At the latest CSRHD board meeting, held Sept. 17, Brenda Leigh, one of the directors representing the Strathcona Regional District, put forward a motion calling for the reinstatement of general pathology services at the local hospitals.

The action is the latest move in an ongoing and sometimes confusing debate over pathology services, which has generated letters from the public, responses from health professionals and further rebuttals during the last year or so. At issue is the practice of sending work out of the region to specialized pathologists. Part of Leigh’s motion also called for the CSRHD region to be excluded from a contract with the Vancouver Island Clinical Pathology Consulting Corporation (VICPCC).

The CSRHD includes representatives from Comox Valley and Strathcona regional districts and has a job to oversee local contributions toward hospitals and other health-related capital projects. Some board members were wary of delving into the issue, as their mandate focuses on capital projects.

“I certainly appreciate the intent of the motion. I am very concerned though of the board getting into operational issues versus governance,” said Andy Adams, one of the Campbell River board members.

Doug Hillian, a Courtenay board member, said he was not necessarily opposed to the motion but to resolve the dispute, they needed to better articulate their concerns. For example, Dr. Jennifer Grace, Island Health’s executive medical director for the area encompassing Comox Valley, Strathcona and the North Island, had just provided a presentation to the board about pathology services. She said she had not been able to see the letter that prompted her presentation in the first place. Hillian suggested they form a small committee to have direct discussions with Island Health over the matter.

Earlier in the meeting, Grace gave a presentation to the board explaining where the need lies in pathology services, particularly for interpreting blood and bone marrow work. Most often, as a physician, she requires more specialized pathology work than what happens out of the local general pathology units.

“When I need to speak with a pathologist, probably 95 per cent of the time I need to speak with a highly-specialized pathologist because my questions are extremely complex and often require special testing of blood that’s beyond the scope of our lab,” she told the board. ‘The regular blood work I order, that happens business as usual.”

Another consideration, Grace said, is that some specialist services such as radiology and pathology can be done at a distance.

“I don’t actually interface directly with pathologists,” she said.

She conceded the issue has created some ‘bad blood’ between the sub-specialty test pathologists and the local pathologists, especially at a time when pathologists, like many specialists, are in short supply.

“It makes it harder to talk to the people I need to talk to,” she said. “That’s just calling it out and being as plain as possible.”

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Earlier this year, the CSRHD board sent a letter to Island Health about the issue but had yet to get a response, prompting Leigh to make her motion. As part of it, she wanted the premier, the opposition leader and local MLAs to be copied on the issue.

She made the resolution at the end of the meeting, saying she was motivated by the fact the board had invested capital into the new hospitals, including the lab facilities and equipment.

“We have every right to ask the government for accountability,” Leigh said.

Jim Abram, another SRD director, agreed with Hillian’s suggestion to set up discussions as a “second step” toward resolving the issue, but he supported the motion.

“I think this needs to be the first step,” he said.

The motion passed with three board members voting in opposition: chair Charlie Cornfield and directors David Frisch from Courtenay and Ron Kerr from Campbell River.

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