Maintaining Laboratory Personnel Competency During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic crises the United States is experiencing has highlighted the importance of having trained and competent laboratory professionals. Providing accurate, reliable, and timely testing to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of disease is the primary goal of the medical laboratory. The ability to meet the laboratory’s goal hinges on the competency of the individuals performing patient testing.

The importance of having qualified personnel to perform laboratory testing is magnified during a disease pandemic where each positive or negative result has public as well as patient concerns. (The results are also monitored by local and national officials as well as the media.) Verifying the competency of qualified individuals performing patient testing is accomplished through conducting knowledge and skill assessments at defined frequencies.

Despite the urgency of the moment, laboratories must still follow the CLIA ’88 regulations allowing only trained and qualified individuals to perform patient testing. In addition, CLIA ’88 mandates that the competency of laboratory testing personnel conducting non-waived moderate and/or high complexity testing must be assessed semi-annually after the individual begins patient testing, and thereafter annually (CFR §493.1413.9 and 493.1451.9). (The terms semi-annual and six-month are used interchangeably.)

Some specific initiatives have been implemented in response to the pandemic. The FDA has issued several emergency use authorizations (EUA) for COVID-19 tests to help address the testing needs of the nation. (A EUA allows a company to bring a medical device to the market much faster.) The College of American Pathologist (CAP) has also clarified the training requirements for laboratory testing personnel. According to the CAP’s latest guidance, the same training records may be used at different hospitals if testing is standardized across a hospital system. However, competency of non-waived testing must be completed at each site testing is performed irrespective of whether testing is standardized or not.

CLIA regulations explicitly state that competency of an individual performing non-waived moderate or high complexity testing at a CLIA-approved laboratory must be assessed semi-annually in the first year the individual performs patient testing. Many laboratories have interpreted the regulation as requiring an employee to do six-month competencies in each discipline. That is an incorrect interpretation.

Regardless of the discipline, once an employee has been trained on a test system, CLIA only requires two six-month competencies after the individual has begun patient testing unobserved.

Many laboratory training programs include the employee performing patient testing under the supervision of a qualified trainer. The trainee may test patient samples during training, but the tasks are considered a part of the overall test system training program. Once a trainee has completed training on a test system, signed-off by the trainer, and begins performing patient testing on a test system, the laboratory should schedule the two competency assessment dates.

Simply stated, the clock for the timing of the two six-month competencies begins when the employee is trained on a test system and begins testing patient samples unobserved. (Often, this is the day when the employee has been placed on the laboratory’s work schedule even though they may still need training in other departments.)

Depending on the length of training and size of the laboratory, the first six-month competencies may include test systems from different disciplines. Almost without exception (especially in small to medium-sized hospital laboratories), the second six-month competencies should cover the majority of the tests in the laboratory the employee uses to perform patient testing. It is important to remember that all test systems the employee is using to perform patient testing must be assessed on the due date of each six-month competency.

It is not unreasonable to expect there may be delays in meeting the timing of competencies during a pandemic. However, there are no exceptions for training and competency frequency. With many cities having a large number of civilians and employees infected, it is highly likely laboratory staffing will be negatively affected. Laboratory managers and supervisors should be vigilant in documenting any problems or delays which may impact compliance with the regulations. Documents explaining the circumstances involved in any regulatory or accrediting failure will prove invaluable during and after an inspection.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the nation’s healthcare system. It has placed a spotlight on the valuable role laboratories fill in delivering quality healthcare. Medical laboratories are only able to meet the challenges because dedicated qualified and highly-trained individuals staff them. Laboratory administrators, managers, and supervisors must remember that training and competency assessments are ongoing and required during the pandemic and after.

Darryl Elzie, PsyD, MHA, MT(ASCP), CQA(ASQ), has been an ASCP Medical Technologist for over 30 years and has been performing CAP inspections for 15+ years. He has a Masters of Healthcare Administration from Ashford University, a Doctorate of Psychology from The University of the Rockies, and is a Certified Quality Auditor (ASQ). He is a Laboratory Quality Coordinator for Sentara Healthcare. Sentara Laboratory Services provides services for 12 full-service hospitals, five ambulatory care centers, and a large number of medical group practices. Dr. Elzie provides laboratory quality oversight for four hospitals, one ambulatory care center, and supports laboratory quality initiatives throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.

One thought on “Maintaining Laboratory Personnel Competency During a Pandemic”

  1. Have to point out one thing is the competency of the auditor. We often see the chemistry or haematology people come to audit microbiology or molecular department or vice versa. Wondering do they really understand RT-PCR for COVID-19?

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