Surgical biopsy wait times need improvement: Saskatchewan auditor

REGINA — Saskatchewan’s auditor says the province has to improve the way it analyses and diagnoses surgical biopsies.

Provincial auditor Judy Ferguson found routine biopsies are taking labs in Saskatoon an average of 12.1 days and 18.7 days in Regina.

A routine biopsy should take about five business days, Ferguson said after tabling her semi-annual report Tuesday.

“This is an area where the health-care system needs to do better,” Ferguson said. “They need to figure out what factors are delaying the processing and work on rectifying those factors.”

A surgical biopsy removes tissues for analysis to help diagnose health problems including cancer. Ferguson found it took labs between one and 222 days to issue a diagnosis report with the average wait being 35 days.

“That is concerning, right?” she said. “There’s a patient on the other side of that diagnosis and there’s a health-care professional trying to do their job.”

The health authority didn’t know why labs weren’t turning around biopsies fast enough or whether the labs were properly staffed, she added.

Corey Miller, the vice-president of provincial programs with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said turning around biopsies in five days will take work.

“That would be great target for us but we’re not there yet for sure,” he said.

The auditor found labs in Regina and Saskatoon have a backlog of around 1,300 biopsies awaiting analysis as of September which Miller said is responsible for the long turnaround in results.

The labs now have a visual graph of the backlog which has been well-received, Miller said.

“They don’t just see stacks of specimens and slides. They actually can look at the chart and see a graph that shows we’re trending down or we’re trending up and we can reallocate our resources with the team.”

Physicians are also able to prioritize biopsies if they feel it’s urgent, he said.

Five labs are located between Saskatoon and Regina with single labs in Prince Albert, North Battleford and Moose Jaw.

Saskatoon and Regina labs analysed over 150,000 specimens from surgical biopsies last year, or about 45,000 cases. The Saskatoon lab has 58.5 full-time positions while Regina has 40.5 positions.

Miller said there is a shortage of pathologists in the province and the authority is recruiting. He said up to five more pathologists are needed to handle the workload.

The auditor found neither Saskatoon or Regina tracked biopsy specimens through the entire process. Miller said a pilot project using barcodes will be in place this month and could be extended to Regina.

Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili, who is also a physician, said the issue was first raised in 2015. He said other colleagues have said waiting for a diagnosis is a real concern.

“It’s a pretty important period that should be shortened as much as safely possible,” he said.