Life as a Rural Med Tech

My friend and professional colleague, Scott, graduated with me from a medical laboratory technology program in Montreal several years ago. Our careers started very similarly, with both of us being offered positions in big Montreal hospitals. Last year, though, Scott made the decision to move to a tiny Quebec town so remote that there aren’t any roads connecting it to the big cities and you’ve got to arrive by plane or ferry. 
Because he believes strongly in the advocacy aspect of Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, Scott was happy to allow a chat to become an interview for my blog. He will be translating part of this post for use in his hospital’s newsletter to celebrate Lab Week in the far north.
Scott, you currently work in a very remote area of Quebec. Why did you decide to leave your job in a big Montreal hospital to work where you are now?

Changing from a larger institution to a more remote smaller institution was driven by the idea that I could be more involved globally in all the different branches of med lab. Larger institutions tend to train technologists in one particular area while a smaller lab involves more cross-training. Also, the quality of life in a small northern community was key in my decision to head north.
Downtown “Scottsville”
Besides the view and the shorter commute, what are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in how the lab is staffed and run at the two hospitals?

In the larger institution I found that quantity, tests per hour, turn around time were very important markers in the running of the lab. Patients are one of a number of patients. In a smaller lab; patient care and quality tends to be of the utmost importance. The results produced from a smaller lab are those of a neighbour, friend, or someone from one of the villages served.

I currently have three co workers. Two medical technologists and one technician. The shifts are 8am-4pm/10am-6pm/1pm-9pm Monday thru Friday with one 8am-4pm shift on Saturday and Sunday. All other hours are covered by an on-call service that is shared by the three medical technologists. Therefore, I do on-call every three weeks. I would say I’m called in on average 2-3 times per week. Emergencies most of the time are chest pains, heart attacks. Most big cases are transferred to larger tertiary centers. We are very dependent on charter airplanes: we have two planes on standby most of the time to move people around.

Scott’s winter transportation

Would you go back to a big hospital, now that you’ve seen what a small rural hospital lab is like?

It would be difficult to return to a larger institution. I am happy overall with the job in the smaller hospital. I think it has more to do with quality of life than the actual job. There are crappy things to working here and crappy things there. Right now there is less crap here than there. 🙂

The Montreal General Hospital

Do you feel like a bigger hospital, because of its volume, is less able to be careful? Are the results coming out of the lab more likely to be inaccurate?

Quality is a difficult thing to judge. I don’t think that results would be inaccurate but larger institutions with increased automation and being driven by quantity might have more difficulty picking up on problems that arise. Both institutions follow quality control and quality assurance guidelines; but to use an analogy, Ferrari produces very high quality cars but only produces a few per year while Ford produces millions of cars with very good quality but not to the standard of Ferrari.
“Scottsville”: Home to the Ferrari of hospitals

Speaking of automation, is the rural hospital equipped with older analyzers, or are you working with newer versions of the instruments?

Each institution chooses instruments based on needs. The larger institution had a higher volume and therefore required newer and more performing machines. The smaller hospital had instruments for the volume that is done and therefore they do tend to be a little older but still produce very good results. As an example, I saw a new instrument being offered by a biomedical company that could produce over 4000 test results per hour. In the smaller lab, an instrument of that size would be useless. The smaller institution requires more reliable, proven instrumentation.
He’s really, really far north

You’re in a very very out-of-the-way spot and depend on ferries to bring you supplies. Have you ever had problems getting reagents or blood for transfusion due to weather problems? What happens when an instrument fails and needs repair?

On a daily basis, we are very dependent on the weather. If the weather is bad, sometimes we cannot receive orders or send out specialized tests to other hospitals. We tend to check the weather on an almost hourly basis due to the rapid changes that can occur weather wise. One of the most important choices in my opinion for the lab when purchasing instruments in to purchase reliability. But in cases when things do fail, a med tech must be able to tinker with instruments with the assistance of over the phone tech support. We do carry a few spare parts but most are sent next day if needed. If an instrument has a major failure, service contracts guarantee that service technicians will come out and have a look. The smaller lab does allow me to get more hand on with repairs.
A ferry bringing food so Scott won’t have to eat his neighbors

What attracted you to the medical laboratory field?

I enjoy the scientific aspect of the job. I had gone to school in Chemistry and enjoy the idea of being more pratical than theoretical in the medical lab field.

Once you started work as a med tech, did the work resemble what you’d imagined it to be, or was it a shock to move from school to the work force?

The largest mental adjustment was probably dealing with stressful real life situations as compared to fictious cases. As medical technologist, we see the good and bad of most if not all health cases that pass through a hospital. The training I was provided in school provided both a classroom setting and a practical setting to help bridge the gap between theory and work life. Also, an internship in the last few months of school helped to limit the shock. Of course, in real life work, things are not always ideal and you’re always learning about new things, new ways, and improving yourself everyday.
Med lab reality can get pretty gross

If you could go back to a med tech program where students are just starting the basic classes, what would you say to them?

I would honestly ask them if they are truly dedicated to patient care. Are they willing to work odd hours, weird shifts, weekends, holidays? The lab, as any other health profession, involves thinking about others more than oneself at times. You have to be willing to be flexible and available because in the end it is to help someone in need.

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