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Canada bleeding heart-and-lung surgery technicians to better-paying U.S.

Demand for perfusionists skyrockets during pandemic, with shortages in hospitals across the country
Newly trained perfusionist Kris Hromadnik working during a coronary arterial bypass case. (Supplied by Roger Stanzel)

Pandemic-fuelled demand and bigger paycheques in the U.S. have led to a number of perfusionists heading south of the border, even while hospitals in Canada struggle to find enough trained professionals.

A perfusionist manages a patient’s life support during cardiac surgeries like a heart bypass. They use a heart-lung machine to help replace heart and lung function, allowing surgeons to operate on a non-beating heart during surgery.

And with the respiratory issues COVID-19 can cause, perfusionists are in high demand in Canada and the U.S., according to Roger Stanzel, former president of the Canadian Society of Clinical Perfusion. Stanzel said there is a shortage of perfusionists in every province. But in the U.S., perfusionists can be offered substantially more money — Stanzel said he has heard of perfusionists being offered $180,000 US plus benefits as a starting salary compared with a $120,000 average salary for those who stay in Canada.

“Unlike Canada, the U.S. hospitals are in the business of making money through insurance companies,” he said in an email. “Subsequently, if they have to cancel cardiac cases due to a lack of perfusionists, the hospital is losing money.”

Currently, there are only three schools that offer training programs, in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

The program at the Universite de Montreal has around four or five students per year.

The British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver also moved its program from biannual to annual in 2018 after seeing demand increase, according to Treena Cardiff, associate dean of diagnostics and advanced practice at BCIT. The program trains around five students a year.

“The School of Health Sciences Perfusion Program works in partnership with the health authorities and ministry to ensure that we are meeting the demands for perfusionists in B.C.,” Cardiff said in an email.

The biggest school, The Michener Institute of the University Health Network in Toronto, runs yearly classes now — Stanzel said about five years ago the program was run every two years. Jacquline Waldorf, a spokesperson for the school, said they upped the number of students admitted to 18 from 13 for the September 2021 class “based on demand in the profession.” The previous year, 223 people applied for the 13 spots in the program.

Stanzel said one issue is that post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility, and schools have a mandate to meet the demand for professionals in their own province and not elsewhere in the country.

“If the Maritimes have a perfusionist shortage, it is a lower priority than if Ontario, B.C. or Quebec, respectively, have shortages,” he said. “One avenue that can be taken is for hospitals to sponsor students. This has been done successfully in the past, however, there are limits on the number of sponsored seats.”

Schools can try and meet the demand, but with the pandemic things can change quickly, Stanzel said.

He added with so few people admitted to programs each year, people dropping out is a big problem. Qualifications to become a perfusionist take two years and require a bachelor’s degree, but for many people it is a backup until they get into medical school, Stanzel said.

Currently, all B.C. health authorities are fully staffed for perfusionists, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health.

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