Critical Value

(No. Not that kind of critical value; your patient’s hemoglobin is absolutely fine…)

Hello again everyone! Back from a relevant and important case-study last month, I’d like to pivot to highlighting an important annual celebration that happens every May 6-12th around the world: International Nurses’ Day.

I know, I know. This is a blog for medical laboratory professionals, what gives? We get lab week, they get nurses’ week…separate but equal? In my opinion, not exactly the best modus operandi for collaborative medicine. In fact, nursing and laboratory medicine have both had a rich, connected, and parallel history for decades and the professional intersections of their efforts is something to be celebrated!

A lot of current published literature focuses on nursing in the pre-analytical realm of specimen collection and processing. That’s totally fine, and quite important to diagnostic testing, but if you go back a few decades with me it’s clear to see we’re both frontline medical professionals—and that’s without a global viral pandemic!

Image 1. I’m sorry but the label needs to be dated and initialed at bedside—KIDDING. That happens a lot I’m sure (I would know), but nurses and medical laboratory scientists (technologists) have been counterparts for decades. The present is no different. We are two parts of a strong interdisciplinary, collaborative effort to improve healthcare for our patients. After all, we’re always #StrongerTogether. (Source: Laboratory Medicine, June 1970)

In the very first issue of Laboratory Medicine¸ one of ASCP’s main journals, an article discussed the critical communication between nursing and the laboratory. The bottom line (from 1970)? Doctors and nurses might use “stat” too much, and medical technologists are very busy folks—has anything changed? In another piece in the same journal from 1984, the topic of MLS (then MT) recognition was examined. Almost 14 years apart, this article highlighted that the lab wished for recognition, and that doctors and nurses valued their MT’s experience and knowledge, despite their work behind the scenes. Fast forward to the present, professional societies like ASCLS have established national celebrations of our hard work with Medical Laboratory Professional’s Week in April. In May, the International Council of Nurses (and our American Association of Nursing) promotes Nurses’ Week. Our super-hero themed celebration of diagnostic excellence and commitment is matched by their theme of nursing the world back to health. The World Health Assembly designated 2020 as the year of the nurse for obvious reasons. None of us would be able to thrive, survive, or work in or out of healthcare without nurses. So for this year’s Nurses’ Week, Nurses’ Day, or even the Year of the Nurse, this pathology postgraduate-trainee is happy to celebrate our clinical friends and colleagues.

Image 2. Melizza, Nataliya, Donna, and Roksana are the nurses that manage Loyola’s robust apheresis clinic service. I don’t think it would run without them. They effectively demonstrate that nursing is critical across any specialty, and patient safety and outcomes are directly related to the care they receive.

Significant parts of pathology and laboratory medicine rely heavily on nurses. In transfusion medicine, you wouldn’t be able to have any significant apheresis clinic activity without the compassion and attention of nurses. Clinical Pathologists really lean on the knowledge, skill, talent, grace, compassion, and dedication of the nurses that care for patients receiving this highly specific and specialized treatment modality. Think about how other “interventional pathology” specialties like cytopathology or hematopathology would suffer without the commitment of nurses to keep our patients safe during a fine-needle aspiration, or bone marrow collection.

I write a lot about our work in pathology and laboratory medicine, from bench to bedside, but considering our nursing colleagues:

Nurses are kind.
Nurses are brilliant.
Nurses are skilled.
Nurses work in all kinds of roles, jobs, and settings.
Whether they work in an office, clinic, or hospital unit, care for you or a loved one, close the learning gaps for a medical student or resident, champion for better outcomes for one patients or thousands or people at once; our lives are all better for it. Their work never ends, and our need for them never will.

Image 3. Mini-brag: my wife (who has secretly appeared in a few ASCP-related media as she accompanies me to meetings—and even roundtables!) is a nurse and a fantastic one. An INF Top 40 Under Forty Nursing Leader, a former community-based health clinic non-profit chief of staff, an internationally renowned lecturer on emergency and disaster mitigation strategies, and a very important Chicago region disaster response manager who’s inches from finishing her DNP in Public Health so, like, what am I even doing…?

I obviously see the value and impact of nursing every day. Doesn’t hurt that I’m surrounded by great ones at work and at home.

Happy (belated) Nurses Week!

Thanks for reading, see you next time!

Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS(ASCP)CM is a first-year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. He is a certified CAP inspector, holds an ASCP LMU certificate, and xxx. He was named on the 2017 ASCP Forty Under 40 list, The Pathologist magazine’s 2020 Power List and serves on ASCP’s Commission for Continuing Professional Development, Social Media Committee, and Patient Champions Advisory Board. He was featured in several online forums during the peak of the COVID pandemic discussing laboratory-related testing considerations, delivered a TEDx talk called “Unrecognizable Medicine,” and sits on the Auxiliary Board of the American Red Cross in Illinois. Dr. Kanakis is active on social media; follow him at @CEKanakisMD.

Anticipating Sublimating

Many years ago I worked in a lab that often received dry ice in boxes with our blood product deliveries. The habit in the lab was to dump the excess frozen carbon dioxide into one of our stainless steel sinks. The staff would get excited each time there was a delivery because they liked to run tap water onto the ice to make a “waterfall” of smoke flow onto the floor when they were bored. Before too long, this repeated incorrect placement of dry ice resulted in severe damage to the sink and pipes below. The stainless steel basin cracked and the sink fell down onto the broken pipes below. That particular plumbing is not designed to handle such a low temperature, and the repair was not cheap. Luckily, no one was injured. I thought this was a long-dead practice in labs, but even today I get questions about proper dry ice disposal and am asked whether or not the sink is a good spot for that.

Dry ice sublimates at room temperature. That means it transforms from a solid state directly into a gas. Too much of this gas in a small space will reduce the normal oxygen levels in the area, potentially causing dizziness and asphyxiation. Letting dry ice sublimate in the work place can be a dangerous practice. If you have dry ice to dispose of, the best practice is to set it outside (where other could not have access to it) so it can dissipate into the open air.

Dry ice is often used in the transport of specimens, blood products, and certain lab reagents. The Department of Transportation considers it a dangerous good, and it must be used and labeled specifically if it is to be shipped by land or by air. If dry ice is used in shipping, an additional Class 9 miscellaneous hazard label also must go to the right of the Class 6.2 infectious substance label. In addition to the Class 9 label, the outer box must be labeled with the net quantity of dry ice used.

Another common use of dry ice is with the transport of outreach or clinic lab samples in courier vehicles. Certain samples must be kept frozen for testing, and the use of dry ice provides a convenient method for maintaining the necessary temperatures. Dry ice is placed in a cooler in the courier vehicle, and samples are placed until delivery to the reference laboratory. With that, there are specific safety practices that should be adhered to when using dry ice for this purpose. Couriers are often overlooked when considering safety training, but they are an important piece of the lab sample and testing process. Be sure couriers have complete safety training, including training for the proper handling of dry ice.

Couriers should limit the amount of dry ice placed inside the cooler that will rest in the vehicle. No more than three pounds of dry ice should ever be placed in that cooler. The cooler should never be completely sealed (remember the ice sublimates to gas, and the volume of the gas in the cooler will expand). Also, if dry ice is kept inside of a vehicle, the windows should be left opened, even a tiny bit. There have been incidents where too much dry ice in a closed vehicle has caused a driver to become dizzy or even become unconscious. Obviously, this is a potentially dangerous or even deadly situation and should be avoided completely.

In recent years, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) added new regulations for labs that handle dry ice. These safety rules include the use of appropriate (insulated or cryogenic) gloves and a face shield when handling dry ice. Safety Data Sheets should be available and staff who use dry ice must have documented training. CAP also discusses the need for using dry ice only in well-ventilated areas.

In the laboratory or outreach settings, employees are asked to work with many dangerous substances, bloodborne pathogens, chemicals, and sometimes dry ice. Inherently, these departments are not safe, but OSHA requires that employees be able to work safely in those places, and it can be done. Proper training and oversight of safety are the keys to ensuring your employees can collect, transport, and process lab samples in such a way in which all involved in these processes are kept safe.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

Making Lemonade from Lemons: Our Laboratory Lives after COVID-19

Laboratorians struggled through 2020 but successfully navigated a difficult situation while maintaining and improving our high-quality service to our patients. By laboratorian, I mean all of us—medical, public health, research, industry, etc.—because, across all sectors, anyone working in a laboratory (our family) was pushed to the limits to do more with less, work harder with fewer people, provide results with challenging procedure standard, and save lives while risking our own. It is quite easy to go into a clinical laboratory that is providing COVID-19 testing and find heroes that were there before, excelled during this pandemic, and will be there tomorrow. But there were heroes in every laboratory. Our public health laboratorians spent tireless hours trying to provide testing, coordinate testing, disseminate information, and relay the best current epidemiology to leadership to keep the country running. Our research laboratorians developed and delivered data, new information, novel biology, and potential interventions for the novel coronavirus. Our industry laboratorians were crucial components to vaccine development and delivery. And, unlike most of the country, our laboratorians were not able to “work from home” because, well, there are laws against having certain things in your house that might escape and kill your neighbors. It is good to be essential, but it has it pain points. Our laboratorians have felt that pain by still commuting to their benches to get the work done every day. But they did it and did it well! And what is often forgotten is that every single one of these laboratorians already had a “day job” in delivering a full catalog of laboratory-based services to which they added a successful COVID-19 response. If you see a laboratorian after you read this blog, you should want to hug them and say thank you.

Vaccination is spreading and will overtake and conquer this virus in parallel with our continued social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing. In the background, testing will continue and will drive how our leaders make decisions more than anything else. We can see an end to this bedlam and are now facing, perhaps, one of the most difficult questions we have ever faced as a global laboratory community: “What do we do now?”

Our pathologists, long awaiting the day when digital telepathology was the norm, were thrust headfirst into that practice during the pandemic under emergency conditions. Many of them had already started (sometimes in a big way) but others were pushing glass routinely. Many of us have leapfrogged to a place from which we cannot return. We need to evaluate the virtual practice of the past year to determine the error rates and see if it is comparable (or better) than our routine glass slide practice. Is eBay or LetGo going to be overwhelmed with microscopes while high resolution monitors go into backorder? We must still contend with the requirement of “presence” and the moniker of “CLIA”, which was temporarily separated from a pathologist’s role in care during the pandemic. These new digital practices may address our long-standing workforce shortages. Working from home was not a possibility but a requirement for much of the last year. Care continued and work was done. What evidence would argue that working in an office is “better” than working from home when we consider the practice of pathologists? The financial implications of cost per square foot of overhead when taking up space in an academic medical facility is more than sufficient for a CFO to argue that pathologists working from home is great. But this is assuming that the workstation, the workflow, and the outputs were optimized. Not all pathology laboratories went fully digital and there was a great deal of slide shipping/couriering. On the other side of this pandemic, much like the 6 to 10 different platforms found in a clinical lab to perform a COVID-19 test, we will find that many practices are not sustainable, can be replaced and optimized, and will require more upheaval and pivot from our pathologists. To clarify, before COVID-19, pathologists practiced basically the same anywhere in the world; namely, review of glass slides in slide folders with a connected case file. During COVID-19, a whole new set of options emerged for how we would do that routine work that were uncontrolled and ad hoc. Now on the other side, we must separate the practices that are best for patient care from those that got the work done in a crisis to find our way forward. If the optimal model is (and I am not saying that it is) digital telepathology from anywhere, we must work hard to define “anywhere” for the sake of our patient’s care and safety. Monitor or other devices standards, which have long been the bane of the telepathology community, are still not standards. CLIA is specific about what constitutes a laboratory and its four walls. Accreditation teams do not inspect people’s home offices. On the other side of this pandemic, how do we find a common, best practice in a virtual age? We must return to a state of highest possible quality for our patients without giving up the advances we made in this crisis.

I once wrote up a laboratory revision plan for a firm that had 9 hospitals. Each had its own pathology laboratory employing 1 to 3 pathologist and similar staff for grossing, histology, and admin. Each laboratory had a volume of less than 3000 samples per year (and referred complex cases to a tertiary care center out of network). Based on our revision, in formalin concentration and recycling alone, the system would save $100,000. With a centralized laboratory (easily capable of handling 30,000 samples per year) and a digital pathology strategy, the work could be done by half the number of pathologists. Most importantly, the reagent/supply savings from having one laboratory rather than 9 was astronomical. The bottom line was an increase in revenue of nearly $1,000,000 with a cost savings of more than 75%. The key element of this plan that is important here is the digital telepathology component that reduces the number of staff needed and the office space needed which, at the time of the revision proposal, was “innovative” but thought too new to be reasonable. COVID-19 has tested that one aspect of the model and found it to be more than reasonable. More importantly, laboratory management and organizational leadership has had to take a hard look at costs, cost centers, and fixed expenses in such a way that the model above now becomes not lucrative but essential to staying in operation. We are trained in the laboratory to always be working on quality improvement, but COVID-19 has pushed us to always be working on fiscal improvement as well.

As we return to our “new normal” after COVID-19, the lessons we learned from this pandemic are going to translate into mergers, acquisitions, consolidations, closings, and restructurings of all types of businesses and services with the laboratory being no exception. The concept of surge capacity, for example, for testing of a new infectious agent that has emerged, has been a trial by fire, and there are many important lessons to learn from this as well. Should our approach to the next pandemic be to divert our staff from regular laboratory operations and bring into our facilities 6 to 10 new platforms for testing? Perhaps we should consider using temporary warehouse space offsite from our existing laboratory as well as backfill or relocating staffing for this crisis management to prevent complete disruption of our workflow and our policies. This is the type of solution that can exist when contingency planning is a routine part of operations. Those many facilities that were forced to bring in extra platforms are going to be facing a different crisis as test volumes crash; namely, what to do with the equipment. The firms that produce and sell that equipment have a similar challenge of expanding their platform beyond COVID-19 testing and making it relevant and competitive for the laboratories that have their extra platforms. Although I am not sure eBay or LetGo will be full of microscopes just yet, I am sure you are going to be able to pick up some nifty analyzers for an incredibly low price very soon. Will the memorial to the half-a-million we have lost in this country to COVID-19 be the useless bodies of laboratory devices that we so desperately needed in 2020? I think we owe them a lot more than that. Let us actively rethink our strategies in the laboratory and across our healthcare system so that such memorials are never needed again.

milner-small


-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.

Is the Cures Act a Cure-All?

Hello everyone and welcome back! Thank you to all those that read the previous piece on life and loss, personal growth, and—of course—vaccines. This month, let’s explore something relatively new on the horizon that has the potential to change pathology as we know it: The Cures Act

Okay, well, new-“ish”; the Cures Act (114th Congress, H.R. 34) was signed into law on December 13, 2016…so you snooze, you lose I suppose. But don’t worry, this signed law faded into seeming obscurity and is now resurfacing because it’s being implemented and enforced based on some of the language of the bill. Along with supporting measures in research and innovation, the Cures Act has an aim at empowering patients with health record accessibility. 

Image 1. Outlined here in a graphic from The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC Health IT), are the three major take-home points of how the Cures Act will affect patient access to health information. (Source: HealthIT.gov)

I will state this plainly. This means that, soon, whether folks like it or not, patients will directly be able to access their medical record en toto without an intermediary office or provider. Pathology reports and other diagnostic materials are not exempt from this. Within the next few months, more hospital systems will implement direct access and release protocols for patients who will now be able to directly read their pathology reports without their primary care physician or specialist’s filter. 

Some of you reading are rejoicing and thrilled. Others may be projecting harsh words this way if I’m the first time you’ve seen this. To the former group: If you were a part of the last ASCP Annual Meeting, I was fortunate to be a part of a panel with Dr. Jeffrey Meyers discussing the role “Patient-Facing-Pathology” where he talked about practical applications of involving patients in our work. I discussed concepts like “Pathology Explanation Clinics” and other reimbursable potential encounters we in pathology might soon be involved in. The idea of bringing pathology out of the basement, out from behind the curtain, and in the forefront of the patient healthcare experience has become a large part of our professional discourse for the past few decades—and the Cures Act is an exciting potential catalyst.

Image 2. Excuse the stock-photo watermark, but if you’re expecting encounters like these. Well…you’re half right. (Source Cartoonstock.com)

To the latter group: don’t panic. It’s going to be fine. You’re (probably) not going to get a 03:00 am call from an anxious patient expressing confused consternation over your frozen section report of “low grade oncocytic malignancy” or “defer to permanent…” Well, at least for now. Most programs are implementing a sort of “proofreading delay” before reports are actually released, with enough time to compile addendum reports and amended notes, etc. Even still, the notion that we may be implicated in a tsunami of impending requisite patient demands is indeed daunting.

I’ve spoken to several colleagues inside and outside my department who can’t seem to come to a consensus (very specific joke there) about the nature of how the Cures Act will change our work. Dr. Imran Uraizee, a surgical pathology fellow with me here at Loyola who’s written on here before, shared much of the same sentiment. The double edged sword. The initial hesitation. The problematic “translatability” and readability of our material. The potential benefits… It led to a great discussion, and ultimately, with comparisons to HIPAA rollouts and other large-scale changes in our healthcare delivery, we agreed that there are going to be growing pains. But growing is good right?

And you’re right! Why should we have to add more responsibilities onto our overcrowded plates? We’ve all just accepted the reality of advancing technologies time and time again, adding infinite immunohistochemical capabilities to our testing/send out menus, incorporating as much molecular testing as our department funds can accommodate, and (some of you) painfully tolerating the advent of digital microscopy and—if I may—artificial intelligent software tools. That’s already so much that has changed our landscape. While we figure out ways to get out of the basement so we can finally have windows, why should we change the way we file and release our reports? Or should we? Will we be directly answering the phone calls of exceptionally-involved-in-their-care patients without some kind or reimbursable encounter? Will residents? Think of our administrative support and ancillary staff—we may not have enough phones. When you add more, you expect some burden to shift. This will undoubtedly tax someone’s productivity; we just haven’t figured out who, what, where, or how yet.

But let’s go back to the positives… This is, in fact, a double-edged sword. And while, on the one hand, we might worry over the implications of diving in too deep, this really has potential to advance our profession in such a positive way. First of all, patients’ direct access to pathology reports may do us all a favor an slowly increase the medical literacy challenges we face today. Let’s be honest, pathology reports are not user-friendly and, as much as we may like to admit that our autopsy reports are written so that decedents’ families may find solace or comfort, we’re not writing for them directly. Behind our medico-legalese, our coded clinical content, and high-expert level commentary that far supersedes the standard 7th grade reading level, are decades of evolution in a field of medicine that has catered to fellow clinicians over patients. We write for heralded concepts in high-reliability and high output departments that demand precision, accuracy, and volume. To some, this may have contributed to some of the medical mistrust we face in this country and with increased transparency and open doors, we may even reduce the litigious nature of the patient-physician dynamic. And hey! If we can actually charge for these encounters like our clinical compatriots—which we have the potential too, by the way—then why not? The average CPT reimbursement in 2018 was $75 for a 15 minute encounter. Let’s say a full day of meeting patients includes four of these consults per hour. That’s about $300 per hour, $2,400 per full work day; with a faculty of about 20-30, just a handful doing consults for a day would be nearly $10,000. I can do more math. So could you. But hey we just bought new state-of-the-art IHC stainers and a boatload of shiny clinical analyzers with matching middleware support. Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth? Wishful budgets aside, I don’t have any definitive answers for you—I know, I usually do, I’m sorry. But if the last two years have taught me anything, it’s that we can’t know what we don’t know unless we figure out what we do know.

We know we’ve been wanting to get out from the “paraffin curtain” for quite some time.

We know we’ve wanted to play a larger part in clinical patient care for decades.

We know we’ve got excellent professionals and experts in every nook and cranny this blog finds readers.

Well… careful what you wish for.

Is the Cures Act a cure all? Probably not. But maybe this is a chance for us to have some positive growth within our profession and an opportunity to connect with patients and simply make healthcare at-large better.

What do you think? Contact me on social media, leave a comment below, or share this piece with your colleagues to spark some conversations in your department.

Thanks for reading, see you next time!

Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS(ASCP)CM is a first-year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. He is a certified CAP inspector, holds an ASCP LMU certificate, and xxx. He was named on the 2017 ASCP Forty Under 40 list, The Pathologist magazine’s 2020 Power List and serves on ASCP’s Commission for Continuing Professional Development, Social Media Committee, and Patient Champions Advisory Board. He was featured in several online forums during the peak of the COVID pandemic discussing laboratory-related testing considerations, delivered a TEDx talk called “Unrecognizable Medicine,” and sits on the Auxiliary Board of the American Red Cross in Illinois. Dr. Kanakis is active on social media; follow him at @CEKanakisMD.

The Laboratory Safety Challenge

In 2014 there was an internet challenge which exploded in popularity. It was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in which people would dump cold water on their heads and post the video on social media. The person getting the ice water dumped on them would challenge others to post a video of their dousing and they would in turn donate to the cause of finding a cure for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The challenge became a world-wide sensation and raised $115 million for ALS research. But, like many good things, the challenge had a dark side. Many people were injured while attempting the challenge, and at least two deaths were at least indirectly associated with it.

Another challenge has come to social media lately, and this one involves a technical skill in the laboratory. It, too, has a dark side. The blood smear challenge is the latest rage for lab techs who enjoy posting videos on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Lab techs show off their skill by making the perfect blood smear. At first it was about who could make a smear with the most perfect beautiful, feathered edge. Then the challenge evolved into people making smears while holding the top slide with one finger or even a pencil. There are those who were quite proud to show off their skill and work.

When watching videos of people in various labs performing this challenge, I cannot help but cringe. Several of these lab techs are not wearing lab coats. Many are not wearing gloves, and I have not seen any perform the challenge while using face protection or goggles. Ignoring the safety regulations about using basic personal protective equipment is apparently the norm. These people post this online without a second thought to a public display of working in the lab without PPE. It speaks volumes about the safety culture in those laboratories, and what it says is not favorable.

The next, less obvious safety issue with the videos is that they are created using cell phones or other personal electronic devices in the laboratory. People are handling devices sometimes with gloves, sometimes without, or they are setting them on lab counters which are likely contaminated. The use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices is a dangerous infection control issue, but it is unfortunately all too common. Even before this latest challenge, lab staff all over the country pose for pictures for social media posts that are taken by cell phones. Despite the fact that known and reported infections have occurred in labs from cell phones (and other items brought home from work), techs continue to use them.  

Other issues with the blood smear challenge may be less obvious. Unless these smears are being used, valuable lab supplies are being wasted. Slides and blood-dispenser cap piercing devices cost money, and many lab supplies manufacturers have run into supply shortages this year because of the pandemic. To have a lab waste money or run into shortages for the sake of this challenge might seem foolhardy to some.

Another safety issue with the challenge is the blatant act of playing around with human, potentially infectious blood to make the smears. Staff use engineering controls, work practice controls and PPE to separate people from the hazards in the laboratory. To place oneself at risk unnecessarily, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, borders on reckless.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting labs over a year ago, many laboratorians became concerned for their own personal safety. They were unsure about how they might catch this virus and what effects it might for them and their family. These were valid concerns, and some still have fears today. In conversations with lab staff over the past months I reminded them that they work with bloodborne pathogens every day, and many are as potentially dangerous (or more) than the COVID-19 virus. If Standard Precautions are used on the job, workers will be safe from infections from COVID-19 and other pathogens. The same is true today. Laboratorians may be less worried about the coronavirus, but the risk of infection in labs from this and other pathogens is as real as ever. Using engineering controls, PPE, and safe work practices is the only way to ensure lab staff can go home without bringing something dangerous to our families.

Challenges can be fun. I participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I came out unscathed, but I was likely just lucky, not safe. The same is true for those posting pictures and videos online from inside laboratories. You might have been working that way for years and nothing has happened. Again, that is just luck, and it will run out. Make sure you and your staff are doing what is right, and what is safe. The real challenge is how to get laboratorians in all labs to work safely and follow basic safety regulations. Can your lab meet that challenge?

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

ASCP Releases Two Evidence-Based Recommendations for COVID-19 Testing

COVID-19 testing can be a bit confusing. Recently, ASCP released two recommendations for COVID-19 testing to help clinicians and laboratories sort through the noise and order the right test at the right time. In addition, ASCP has a plethora of COVID-19 resources, including Town Halls, podcasts, journal articles, and more.

A Trilogy of Food, Fun, and Facts: Musings of a Pathologist-in-Training

Pathology is a perfectly blended specialty filled with food, fun and a whole range of factual morphological descriptions!

As a pathology resident, one of the first things that got me intrigued by the specialty was its strong association with many food epithets. From the almond-shaped ovary,1 to the blueberry muffin baby,2 to the coffee bean nuclei in the thyroid,3 fried egg appearance of mast cells,4 grape-like lesions seen in molar pregnancy5 to the flat cake placenta6 and even to the strawberry cervix!7 The list is endless. I found these descriptions so interesting that I kept asking myself, “why do pathologists have to make associations with food for many normal and pathological disease processes we see around?”

Aside from the fun association with food (which I happen to like a lot), getting to learn and understand the pathology of disease processes, genetic and syndromic associations have been a fascinating, humbling, and altogether nerve-wracking experience for me.

It has been fascinating because I totally enjoy learning about the underlying processes that get some people sick while others stay healthy. At the same time, it has also been humbling, because, then I realize that so many disease processes are genetically determined and so out of our control. Along the same lines, the experience has also been neck-wracking, because of the detail and efficiency that goes into mastering different disease morphologies and preparing a comprehensive pathology report. The ability to tell the difference between two very similar disease entities but with different morphological features can drive one crazy, because, sometimes everything just seems to look the same!

I remember my early days as a resident. The first week in residency training to be precise. Then, I got reintroduced to the microscope, which is the power of the pathologist. Looking into the microscope and feigning to see what the senior residents and attendings were seeing felt like outright torture to me. You know why? It’s because everything under the microscope was either blue or pink.

In my few years of training as a resident, I have come to learn that in order to be successful as a pathologist, one must be adept with every single detail. As Pathologists, we deal with the facts. We do not make things up, and strive to present the facts of every case which ultimately supports our rendered diagnoses.

Unlike when I first started my residency training, I now know that not everything under the microscope is just blue and pink, and even if they are indeed blue and pink, the degree of their “blueness” or “pinkness” varies. And the intensity of the hematoxylin and eosin (H&E)/immunohistochemical stains may sometimes tell disease entities apart from one another. So, sometimes when people ask me what type of doctor I am training to be, I tell them, “I am a doctor of colors,” which of course often leaves them confused!

I also tell people that I am training to be a doctor who works from behind the scenes, to make sure they get treated right all the time. And this realization I believe is what has created the greatest impression for me. Realizing that a patient’s choice of treatment may totally be dependent on the pronouncements I make on their disease process, is something that gets me motivated to keep putting in my best into my training in order to become one of the best in my field. Therefore, even though we operate as doctors from behind the scenes, our professional judgments often go a long way in impacting the welfare and outcomes of patients whom we never get to see, which is one of the aspects of the specialty that I truly love.

So, pathology as a specialty has given me a more robust meaning to life. I have learned to value and appreciate the time I spend with those I love, and to make special moments with them count. It has made me realize that there are certain things about life such as genetic diseases, that I have no control over and therefore should only be concerned with giving my very best all the time. Pathology has also made me more detail oriented, by learning to distinguish benign from malignant processes. It has reinforced for me, the importance of being the best person I can be to both my family, neighbors and my community in general. And I would also add that pathology has further reignited my love for good food. So, let the party begin!!!

References

  1. Ignatavicius DD, Workman ML. Medical-Surgical Nursing: Patient-centered collaborative care. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2015. 1735p.
  2. Mehta V, Balachandran C, Lonikar V. Blueberry muffin baby: a pictoral differential diagnosis. Dermatol Online J. 2008;14(2):8.
  3. Oertli D, Udelsman R. Surgery of the thyroid and parathyroid Glands. Springer Science & Business Media; 2012. p. 620.
  4. Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Rapini RP. Dermatology. Gulf Professional Publishing; p. 1438.
  5. Daftary. 100+Clinical Cases In Obstetrics. Elsevier India; 2006. p. 478.
  6. Power ML, Schulkin J. The Evolution of the Human Placenta. JHU Press; 2012. p. 278.
  7. Swygard H, Seña AC, Hobbs MM, Cohen MS. Trichomoniasis: clinical manifestations, diagnosis and management. Sex Transm Infect. 2004 Apr 1;80(2):91–5.

-Evi Abada, MD, MS is a Resident Physician in anatomic and clinical pathology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine/Detroit Medical Center in Michigan. She earned her Masters of Science in International Health Policy and Management from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and is a global health advocate. Dr. Abada has been appointed to serve on the ASCP’s Resident’s Council and was named one of ASCP’S 40 under Forty honorees for the year 2020. You can follow her on twitter @EviAbadaMD.

Patients and Patience (Part 2)

Holiday season in well behind us and, while we celebrate and coordinate getting our COVID vaccinations (side note: get yours please), I’d like to revisit a piece from a while back called “Patients and Patience.”

Then I talked about how our professionally shared spirit of camaraderie and patient advocacy go hand-in-hand with the ASCP mission. How, regardless of what role we play in patient care, we continue to give as much as we can to make the lives and hopes of patients everywhere a bit brighter. This year especially, as the pandemic continues to take over all frequencies and channels (including this blog, I’m sorry), I think it’s especially poignant to remember how life can be both grand and fragile. You’ve read my musings on how doctors can be patients too, and how we can all be stretch so thin it can affect our health. When you think the experiences of anyone in healthcare this past year you can’t help but reflect on how burnout and compassion really both know no bounds.

This month, I’m dedicating this piece to one of Loyola’s faculty who sadly and unexpectedly passed away just before the New Year, Dr. Stefan Pambuccian. In a caustic reminder of life’s grand fragility, he was an archetype of what it meant to be an accomplished and respected pathologist, physician, teacher, and friend. While he and other faculty here push all of us resident/trainees or fellows to be better, and research, publish, learn, share, and grow, people like Dr. Pambuccian set the tone with years of experience, an open door, and an uncanny ability to give you a differential diagnosis from only peeking at a slide from across the room at 1x—not a typo.

Image 1. You can barely find any posters on our walls (of which there are many) that don’t in some way bear the name or relate to the work or Dr. Pambuccian here at Loyola. His office and door continue to receive new messages of loss, praise, thanks, and sentiment. Losses like these are never easy, but no one here went through this alone.

While the residents were having a great uplifting secret santa exchange a few days after Christmas, we went around praising our anonymous gift recipients and shared some laughs amidst a new warm holiday memory. The same joy that filled our workroom vanished after everyone had heard the awful news, taking time to process and simply be with each other that afternoon and the weeks that followed. That’s exactly the message I think rings true this time around: in order to care for patients, and ourselves, our friends, and our colleagues, we should always have reserves of patience, compassion, and humanity. While there are great wellness programs, and tips and tricks to avoid burnout, that’s for other blogs; sometimes what one really needs is other people. Peers. Friends. Family. I’m relatively new here in this program, but what I could see that day was an immediate working shift from signing out cases to taking the time to make sure everyone was okay—whatever that meant for them. You can promote wellness all day, but you can’t (ethically) pose any actual testing of resilience. The loss of Dr. Pambuccian not only demonstrated the camaraderie and compassion at Loyola Pathology, but made sure we all learned what it means to be a great pathologist.

Image 2. A fun yet fleeting secret Santa. Despite the mood of this day being changed by the news, happy memories are still just as important. Both the sad and happy parts of this day brought us all closer, and stronger, together.

Like I said, my interactions with him were brief at best but he gave the morning didactic at my very first residency interview here and I learned all about his bottomless sense of humor and wit. Since starting, he was always there running the Thursday unknown sessions, where I felt empowered to participate alongside his openness for learners at all levels. I even remember I was on-call one night with him on service, and after checking in with other residents, I gave him a call to say there was nothing much happening tonight—I barely made it past my hello, before he told me to have  good night because he already checked the surgery schedule and was just waiting on me to call. Thanks. I could never do justice in telling stories about him when compared to literally anyone else in my department. There were countless more stories, and tons of experiences my fellow senior residents and faculty all shared about their working with him. I just feel lucky enough to have known him.

Image 3. I volunteered along with one of our fellows to take new faculty and resident photographs for our new website. My cloud photo storage is full of 3-4 similarly posed faces of everyone I work with…except Dr. Pambuccian. He wanted to make this fun, much like everything else he did.

I find myself in the same position as the last time I talked on this topic: at a new chapter in life to start becoming the doctor I set off on this journey to become many years ago. With the addition of excellent faculty mentors, friends and colleagues, and an ongoing, renewed sense of purpose, I’ll keep you all posted.

To read more about Dr. Pambuccian’s life, his love of art and cats, his numerous publications which will undoubtedly crash your computer, please click this link to Loyola Pathology’s in memoriam.

Thank you for reading and letting me take this aside to say, as I have before, that we deserve the same compassion and patience as we extend to our patients and that the values that inspire us to do our best to improve healthcare at large are the same values that can help us build strong, caring relationships with our families, friends, and colleagues.

Take care of yourselves and those around you. Thanks for reading! See you next time!

(And look into how and where to get your COVID vaccine!)

Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS(ASCP)CM is a first-year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. He is a certified CAP inspector, holds an ASCP LMU certificate, and xxx. He was named on the 2017 ASCP Forty Under 40 list, The Pathologist magazine’s 2020 Power List and serves on ASCP’s Commission for Continuing Professional Development, Social Media Committee, and Patient Champions Advisory Board. He was featured in several online forums during the peak of the COVID pandemic discussing laboratory-related testing considerations, delivered a TEDx talk called “Unrecognizable Medicine,” and sits on the Auxiliary Board of the American Red Cross in Illinois. Dr. Kanakis is active on social media; follow him at @CEKanakisMD.

Truth or Consequences: The Wrong Question

It was with sadness that I watched the episode of Jeopardy! which featured Alex Trebek’s final appearance. While I hadn’t watched the game show consistently since 1984 when he first began to host, Alex had certainly become an icon in U.S pop culture and I had enjoyed watching him often. The quiz show has always been different than most- the answer must be given in the form of a question, and it must be the correct question in order to score points. As with most games, contestants don’t always ask the right question. That can happen with lab safety, as well.

I was performing an audit in a laboratory when the manager was bringing a new employee through during her orientation. I was introduced as the Lab Safety Officer, and I described some of my duties like auditing and safety compliance monitoring. The new employee immediately asked, “What happens if you catch someone not doing what they should?” That was the wrong question.

As an experienced lab safety professional, I often see people fail to follow certain lab safety regulations. Unfortunately, you do not have to look far to find lapses in lab safety practices. Vendors and service representatives and other visitors walk into labs across the country and lab staff ignore them. The visitors are not given information about the hazards in the department and they are not offered PPE. A look on social media will reveal multiple pictures of lab workers not wearing PPE as well. Oh- and they are taking those pictures with cell phones they shouldn’t be using (sometimes the hand holding the phone is gloved, other times it is not). While I am concerned about these unsafe behaviors, I am equally concerned about those that witness them and say nothing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the public awareness of an important aspect of personal safety: the unsafe behavior of others can have a direct affect on your own safety. People who refuse to wear masks or who are sick and do not isolate themselves may create situations where the virus is spread to others. In the past year, many people have realized this and have felt empowered to say something to those who are not exhibiting safe behaviors. That realization that they may be in danger has made people feel comfortable speaking up for their safety and that of others around them. Perhaps that is what is needed in the lab setting as well.

Unsafe behaviors in the laboratory can easily have consequences that may affect many in the department. Spills and exposures are just some incidents that may occur. Messy lab areas can create trips or falls, and improper storage of chemicals or hazardous wastes can be dangerous as well. Perhaps laboratory staff don’t think enough about the dangerous consequences because there isn’t enough training about them. Perhaps they don’t think about the potential consequences to others because they haven’t been told about the possible physical, environmental, or financial consequences. When the new lab employee asked the question, “What happens if you catch someone not doing what they should,” I should have had an immediate answer. I should have said that she asked the wrong question. The real question is, “More importantly, what happens to you if you’re not doing what you should?” Teaching staff about the consequences of unsafe lab practices is something that should start on day one, and the awareness of these issues should be raised often and continuously. The truth is, it is important to correct your own unsafe behaviors, but it is also important to feel empowered to correct unsafe issues that are witnessed. The truth is, we all have a responsibility for our safety and that of everyone else who may be in the laboratory. If we own that responsibility, then no one’s safety has to be in…jeopardy.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

A Roller Coaster called 2020

2020 has come to an end. I think we can all agree that it’s been a year like no other! It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been merely “different.” In the lab, we have seen new things, had new challenges, and, despite the craziness of it all, have learned a few things along the way.

I think the word of the year in our lab and many others for 2020 would be “adaption.” We’ve had to adapt, change our thoughts and processes and be more creative. In the spring, in the first wave of COVID, many labs were struggling with procuring, validating, and performing new COVID tests. With the influx of cases and patients, particularly in some hard hit areas, lab staff were overwhelmed with an unprecedented increase in workload. In the hospital where I work, early on we had very few cases and the lab was impacted in the opposite extreme. With canceled elective surgeries and a huge drop in outpatient work, we found ourselves being asked to take flex time. Workload was down and techs were taking time off to help the lab and hospital adjust to the decreased revenue and to say within budget. Things were pretty slow and calm.

When surgeries resumed and physician offices opened back up, things were busier than ever. Everyone seemed to be coming in for lab work that had been pushed aside for months. In addition to an increased volume in our existing tests, we were bringing on new COVID tests. Procedures had to be written and signed off, validations had to be done and everyone needed to be trained on the new tests. We found ourselves faced with supply issues for the new tests and had to do some juggling acts to get new testing onboard. At the same time, we also had to deal with a lot of other “supply” issues. While the hospital as a whole has done very well to manage PPE distribution, the lab has had to get creative, reaching out to new suppliers for cleaning supplies, lab coats and gloves. Lab coats became and still are very difficult to keep in supply. We’ve gone colorful! We used to have blue gloves and purple lab coats, but now have multi colored gloves and lab coats all over the lab from multiple vendors.

Possibly the worst of our supply issues has been the lack of trained technologists. In a profession that is graduating fewer and fewer new techs, and as our work force is getting older, we have been experiencing a shortage of qualified Medical laboratory Scientists and Technicians across the country for a number of years. This past year, with the current pandemic, we have seen techs who were working way past retirement age decide to finally retire, and others taking early retirement. In the past 5 years I have worked in 2 hospitals that have continuously had revolving open positions. In 2020, om a large number of COVID cases amongst lab staff, but have had a few. We have had many more staff out on quarantine for 2 weeks at a time for exposures, sometimes several at a time. And, after waiting for months with elective surgeries on hold, the minute these were again allowed, we have had several staff on simultaneous leaves of absence for surgeries.

How have we compensated and adapted for these shortages and changes? At a time when visitors have been restricted in the hospital, we have found ourselves with a severe shortage of staff. We are also competing with other hospitals in the area in the same situations so are having a hard time hiring and keeping new employees. We have adapted by conducting Zoom interviews for hiring. We are in the middle of a big chemistry project bringing on new instruments and some of this training has also moved to virtual venues. ASCP and other organizations have held totally virtual conferences and symposiums. But, having been forced to implement these new technologies, we have learned new skills that can be used in the future to broaden our outreach and educational opportunities.

It has been a challenge to train new techs and to simply get the daily work done with ongoing staff shortages. Staffing has been at critical levels. We’ve been resilient. We’ve been creative. We have had to implement an On Call list to help fill critical holes in the schedule. This is not popular, and is still a work in progress, but has helped us to think of other ways to solve the problem at hand. Bonuses for working extra shifts have helped. We have relied on our great technologists to fill in extra shifts. I’m very proud of everyone working together. Team work is helping hold us together and get through this very difficult year!

I think If I had to find any “good” about this pandemic, I’d have to say it’s been the lack of commuter traffic, and the fact that all this talk about COVID testing has shone a little light on our profession. Yet, with all the talk of “testing,” even though the general public has some concept of lab testing, they still know very little about the profession and the people doing these tests. They may recognize the terms PCR, and antigen and antibody but we’re still a hidden profession. What can we all do? Talk about the profession in your community. Community groups, high schools and community colleges often welcome speakers, and now you can even do it online! You’ve all heard people talking about antigens and antibodies and PCR, but you can tell them about the profession and the people who work with these tests every day. It would be very hopeful to say that this pandemic could highlight the Medical Laboratory profession to the point where students would be filling our programs and we’d see a new interest in the field.

Did we ever think this would last this long? in the spring, making hundreds of masks, I thought making holiday masks would be fun. But then I thought to myself, “ I won’t need to make Halloween masks or Christmas masks.” I never thought we’d still be wearing masks at New Year’s! But masks have become so normal that we have even gotten used to them. I took a cold walk a couple days ago and thanked the mask for keeping my face warm!

2020 has had many ups and downs, many challenges. I am proud to say that Medical laboratory professionals have lived up to those challenges and we can and should feel good about our accomplishments and contributions to fighting this pandemic. We’ve been resilient, we’ve adapted and we’ve grown. We’re on a roller coaster ride but we’re still holding on. Hold on tight and wear that mask!

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.