CENTRAL Gippsland Health has rejected union claims that patient safety could be compromised by pathology staff cuts and a new contract that reduces services in Sale and causes delays in testing and treatment.
Dorevitch Pathology has been awarded the contract for testing services in Gippsland for another two years after Health Purchasing Victoria negotiated the new deal on behalf of CGH, Latrobe Regional Hospital, West Gippsland Healthcare Group and Bairnsdale Regional Health Service.
The move has angered the Medical Scientists Association of Victoria, which claims that cuts to pathology services at Sale Hospital, Latrobe Valley Hospital and Bairnsdale Hospital had created "a very high risk of avoidable patient deaths".
MSAV secretary Paul Elliot said that in recent weeks two pathology testing positions had been made redundant at Sale Hospital, because the new contracts allowed Dorevitch Pathology to "sack scientists" and centralise scientific testing to its Melbourne laboratory.
He said an international medical study had shown that cuts to pathology services risked lives through delayed testing and treatment.
The American Society of Critical Care Medicine study was "irrefutable clinical evidence" that the pathology changes at CGH were unsafe, and could result in harm to Gippsland patients, he said.
But CGH chief executive Frank Evans has insisted the new contract was awarded "on the proviso there would be no impact on patient outcomes and no reduction in timelines or the provision of services".
Dr Evans said the hospital was assured that time-critical testing would still be available locally - something Mr Elliot has labelled "not correct".
Mr Elliot said there had been at least one case already where a doctor at the hospital refused to order time-critical testing on a weekend because a much higher "bulk-charge" rate was now levied for after-hours services under the new contract.
The Gippsland Times understands some haematology tests are taking up to two weeks, while there were extended wait times for other important microbiology tests.
It is also understands doctors are having to start patients on treatment before receiving pathology results, sometimes to avoid the risk of sepsis and other complications if they wait for the results to come back.
Mr Elliot said delays of five to six hours in pathology testing and commencement of treatment for sepsis resulted in survival rates of just 42 per cent of patients.
"A delay of nine to 12 hours resulted in a survival "Importantly, the study also showed that if testing and treatment of sepsis was done within the first hour, patient survival rate is 80 per cent," he said.
The Gippsland Times also understands there are concerns about the "ageing" lab equipment in Sale, and whether Dorevitch would be likely to undertake expensive upgrades before its contract ends in two years.
The union has called the issue a "crisis" and is urging the health minister to investigate.
It is also encouraging its members in Gippsland to contact their local members of parliament to stop allowing public hospitals from outsourcing vital clinical services like pathology "if they want to deliver world-class health care to all Victorians".
Local MP, Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien, said he had been advised that there was "no diminution" of turn-around times or service levels at Sale hospital as a result of the contract update.
"However it's incumbent on the state government to assure the community that the contract it negotiated is a good outcome for patients and our local health services," he said.
Dorevitch Pathology's communications advisor did not to respond to questions. rate of just 25 per cent.