Solutions, Not Resolutions

The turn of the year is a quasi-inspiring time for many people who attempt to change something about themselves or their situation with “New Year’s Resolutions.” When my friends and I were heading to brunch on New Year’s Day in southern California, there were many people running (alone or in groups) which I hadn’t seen before and my one thought was, “How long will that last?” When I returned to Chicago after the holidays, I dusted off my gym membership card and logged some treadmill time—my one thought was, “I hope this lasts!” But we are all too familiar with the breaking of these resolutions by most of us, and the ultimate regret we feel in the latter part of the year when our hopes and dreams of thinness/money/power/rare pokemon/fame have been dashed by the collision with our actual lives and the limited time we have to get done what needs to be done. Fortunately, we are human beings and we are allowed to be disappointed with ourselves over this (or these) tiny failings as long as our life trajectory is heading the way we want*. Then there are those handful of people that each of us will ultimately know who stick to their resolution and shed the weight, get a new job, or (hopefully with increasing numbers!) quit smoking! And we are more inspired by their actual doing of these things than by our lack of resolve.

As individuals, this trivial annual mindset is acceptable and even entertaining. But as a society, empty promises and feigned changes are simply unacceptable. To certain things, we must as a society—and as individuals in that society—commit. Recycling, for example, is a strategy that is both an economic and environmental boon. But as of January 2018, our major “solution” for plastics (especially from the West) that was China has now ended. Other nations willing to take these recyclables stopped their acceptance as well towards the end of 2018. What can we do to solve (not resolve) this situation permanently? Each country should consider first the role of plastics in their society and perhaps, like many African nations, simply ban the product(s). Secondly, encouraging personal recycling and reuse of plastics, for example through water filters to refill plastic bottles or fees on reusable grocery bags, can minimize impact. But, ultimately, each nation needs a sustainable recycling plan that represents a balance of production and utilization, creating a negative plastic total impact (i.e., no new plastic created).

In pathology, the theme of recycling is very important for any laboratory but can have major benefits for laboratories in developing nations. Formalin, xylene, alcohol, and paraffin (the four principle reagents for pathology processing), can be recycled using devices or process plans that can have minimal capital costs to set up. Consider that a given country may have shipping challenges such that an order placed today for 10 gallons of neutral buffered formalin may take 6 weeks to 6 months to arrive and cost 3 to 5 times the price in another country. In that setting, recycling formalin is clearly a superior approach and extrapolates to xylene and alcohol. Process approaches to paraffin (e.g., collecting waste paraffin from trimming and lids, using minimized mold sizes, lateral flow to minimize contamination) can optimize the use of the wax and reduce costs.  As these four reagents represent core elements to the process, efficient utilization, reuse, and management can keep costs low and processes running. But the laboratory must commit to this process and adhere to it every moment of every day to change patient’s outcomes for the better.

Similarly, core histology equipment (unlike many clinical laboratory machines) is almost indestructible when properly managed and maintained. Laboratories in developed nations may replace this equipment when it is several years to a decade old when the equipment may have another decade (or sometimes two) left of life. Decisions to replace functional equipment are left to the individual laboratory; however, once this process occurs, functional equipment should not be left to collect dust and should be moved to a new location where it can be of value. Every laboratory considering the replacement of older equipment must ask the question, “What is the remaining functional life of this device?” If that number is many years or the often stated 70%, a plan for donation of the equipment is highly suggested.  It is this philosophy that inspired the ASCP Center for Global Health program along with many other groups to actively seek out donated, functional equipment and transfer it to nations and colleagues who desperately need it to maintain their pathology services (Do you have equipment for donation? Email us!). This is especially important because the perceived demand for histology equipment in many low-income countries is so low that manufacturers and distributors refuse to become involved with the equipment (especially with trade and tariff barriers standing in the way). But, in truth, the demand is the same per population as in any other country with at least one high volume, functional pathology laboratory needed for every 1 to 3 million people (depending on population age structure and clinical utilization).

As we begin a new year together, reflecting on what we did (and didn’t) do in 2018 and what we can (and should) do in 2019 is an iterative process that can guide us through many decisions. I hope that everyone reading this blog takes a few moments (or even an hour if you can spare it!) to delve into 2018 and really plan for 2019 with true solutions in mind for any challenges you identify. And, lastly, always take some time every day to think outside yourself and even your laboratory to others in your local community or in foreign lands. Consider what little (and big) things you can do that may improve the life of just one person other than yourself and commit to those things.

*If your life trajectory is not going the way you want, consider performing a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and think outside the box about where you are and where you want to be. Don’t be afraid to make life changes or new life choices that give you a better piece of mind and stronger sense of self and self-awareness. A room full of happy people who are self-aware and emotionally intelligent can solve problems at light speed because their personal issues (good or bad) don’t get in the way. So, for 2019, I strongly encourage everyone to consider really solving (not resolving) the problems you perceive in your life so that we can all work together to solve (not resolve) the challenges we face as a society moving into the next decade.

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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