Pathology insider describes unworkable conditions in SydPath PCR testing labs

  • Published January 10, 2022

ABC News, 10 January 2022

A St Vincent's Hospital staff member has expressed serious concerns over conditions at the hospital's pathology clinic, SydPath.

Key points:

  • In December, SydPath sent out false negative COVID-19 results to around 900 people
  • A staff member said some equipment in the SydPath laboratories was unworkable and not being repaired
  • They said staff were expected to work 14 to 16-hour shifts

SydPath was last month at the centre of a major controversy when it was revealed the pathology group sent out false negative PCR results to around 900 of its patients.

The employee's concerns were outlined in an email to the Health Services Union (HSU) and obtained by ABC's 7.30. 

The email said some equipment in SydPath labs was not working properly and not being fixed; that there was a distinct lack of care in maintaining equipment; and that there were not enough resources to process tests accurately.

The employee — who did not want to be identified — said conditions had become unworkable as staff were expected to commit to 14 to 16-hour shifts, sometimes even when they were sick.

The email also said that there were no contingency plans for shortages of staff or of testing machines.

A SydPath spokesman issued a statement saying "SydPath's staff have been working additional hours in response to a public emergency", and that "staff are well-supported and on no occasion have they been asked to work while unwell".

The error on December 25, the spokesman said, "occurred because, to manage unprecedented demand, SydPath labs were pooling tests in two".

To prevent any chance of this happening again, SydPath implemented a series of changes including: "The pooling of swabs has ceased. All results are cross-checked. [There has been a] reduction in the volume of activity – closing of sites and reduction in hours to ensure reduced test turnaround times and to address staff fatigue."

Health Services Union president Gerard Hayes said the sentiments expressed in the email from the hospital staff member were shared by many employees in the pathology sector as record numbers of Australians have been turning out at testing sites across the nation.

"Unfortunately, this is … typical. Health workers working in the pathology areas have been suffering chronic fatigue," Mr Hayes said.

"The lack of support and the abundance of work to perform under pressure is really at the point of putting people in harm's way."

'I was incredibly confused'

Sydney man Mitch Jones was one of the nearly 900 patients who received a false negative PCR result from SydPath. 

"It was the weekend before Christmas. I was out enjoying some good times with some friends at the club together, and a few days later we all started to develop symptoms," Mr Jones said.

He said he was almost certain he had COVID-19 because his symptoms progressed to a short, sharp cough and nasal congestion.

After returning a positive rapid antigen test result, he and a number of his friends decided to brave the long queue and take PCR tests at the SydPath clinic in Sydney's Darlinghurst.

Two days later he received a text message saying his result was negative.

"I didn't quite believe the results," Mr Jones said. "I was incredibly confused."
Mr Jones rang a number of health helplines to query his test results. 

On Boxing Day, he got through to a nurse at the public health unit and, within a few hours, the correction was sent out.

He received more text messages from SydPath, one saying that there had been a "clerical error" and "incorrect negative results have been sent to people who were tested positive", and another text confirming that he in fact tested positive to COVID-19 and should immediately self-isolate. 

"It was shocking to realise that it was more than just me and a few of my friends, and that it was actually a whole lot of other people," Mr Jones said.

"It makes you question the whole entire process."

'Omicron has turned our laboratories' capacity on its head'

Pathology sector insiders have told 7.30 the workforce is currently at breaking point. 

Greg Granger, the director of strategic operations at pathology group Histopath, said the major blunder at SydPath was not surprising and that it could have happened anywhere.

"With all of this pressure, an enormous demand on a system, with capacity stretched to its limit, it was inevitable that there was going to be something like this occur," Mr Granger said.

"It could have happened to us or any other laboratory and these things are likely to keep occurring in the future."

As more people catch the virus, the old way of processing tests, where multiple swabs were tested in a single batch, and re-tested individually if COVID-19 was detected, has faltered. 

"Omicron has turned our laboratories' capacity on its head," Mr Granger said. "Under the normal circumstances of Delta and other outbreaks, the ratio of positives to negatives within the community was very low. 

"Now, with Omicron, there are greater complexities because it has gotten away from us so quickly that we haven't been able to make these adaptations and these changes quick enough to keep ahead of that curve." 

Unable to keep processing the record numbers of tests, a number of pathology clinics temporarily shut down last week.

'Working under extraordinary circumstances'

Last week national cabinet agreed to remove the requirement for a PCR test to confirm a positive rapid antigen result. And all states, apart from WA, have ditched lab tests as a condition of entry. 

These changes are expected to ease the pressures on pathology labs and testing clinics. 

Histopath's Mr Granger said that his organisation had already started adapting its processes to the Omicron variant, but said the impact of the added pressure was still being felt across the sector. 

"We are overworked, we're beaten, we're working under extraordinary circumstances," he said.

"We've never seen it before."