In the peak of the flu season we might see many people wearing masks in physician offices and hospitals. In the news today, as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) continues to spread, we see many images of people wearing different types of respirators, some are N95 respirators and others are surgical masks. Not all experts agree on the efficacy of these pieces of personal protective equipment in the face of viruses, but if you’re going to use them, it is important to know how, when and why.
OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (1910.134) provides information about requirements for staff who may potentially be exposed to airborne pathogens. These requirements include specific instructions for choosing the proper respirator, for providing fit-testing, and for user training. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) also expects labs to determine the risk of airborne pathogen exposure for each employee, and they require labs to have a plan which outlines engineering and work practice controls that reduce exposure potential.
The purpose of a respirator is to protect the employee from contaminated or oxygen-deficient air. Therefore, two classes of respirators are common; air-purifying respirators which use filters to remove contaminants from the air you breathe, and atmosphere-supplying respirators which provide clean air from an uncontaminated source. These types of respirators can also be classified further as tight-fitting or loose-fitting. Tight-fitting respirators need a tight seal between the respirator and the face and/or neck of the user in order to work properly. For now, let’s focus on the air-purifying respirators which are in high demand these days as a potential 2019-nCoV pandemic looms.
In the laboratory, N95 respirators are probably the most commonly-used respirators, often used for protection against tuberculosis and other airborne pathogens. These respirators filter out 95% of airborne pathogens that are 0.3 microns or larger. While the exact size of the 2019-nCoV is not yet known, most coronaviruses are slightly larger than 0.1 microns. Does that mean a N95 respirator (recommended by the CDC) will not offer protection from the coronavirus? Not necessarily.
According to biosafety expert Sean Kaufman (www.saferbehaviors.com), the filter in the N95 respirator works three ways- through interception, impaction, and diffusion. Interception collects larger particles which are blocked by mask fibers, and impaction collects larger particles which have too much inertia to be moved around the filter fibers. Diffusion occurs as smaller particles are bombarded with larger air molecules and are pushed against filter fibers. Most of the bacteria or virus particles are removed from the airstream making the respirator quite useful and protective (HEPA filters on a Biological Safety Cabinet work in much the same way).
Employees who may need to wear a tight-fitting respirator as part of their job are required to have fit-testing every year. This is required by OSHA, and contracted employees (such as pathologists) should be fit-tested as well. Employees who may need such respirators would be those who work in microbiology labs, cytology techs who participate in patient procedures, and others. Labs should perform a risk assessment for each job category to determine the type and level of potential harmful airborne exposure.
Procedure masks, such as those handed out when people suspect they have the flu, are not technically considered respirators. Often, the person who is sick will wear these masks in order to prevent the spread of droplets when coughing or sneezing. They can protect others in the area, but they do not protect the user from harmful airborne pathogens or vapors.
Can these surgical masks be useful for the healthy public when a coronavirus is present? Sean Kaufman says “yes. If you wear a surgical mask in a potentially contaminated environment (on a commuter bus, for example),” Kaufman says, “it can keep you from touching your nose or mouth- two major routes of entry for viruses. Behaviorally speaking, these masks do offer some protection.”
Knowing when and why you use a respirator is vital, but knowing how to use it is important as well. Tight-fitting respirators should never be used without fit-testing to make sure the correct size is being used. Otherwise, the protection offered will be limited. Make sure your staff is properly trained and protected to work in environments where the air is not safe to breathe, and teach others about the usefulness of respirators when the flu and other viruses are lurking!
–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.
On February 4th, the FDA announced an Emergency Use Authorization for the CDC’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus real-time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. Here’s the press release:
Audience: Clinical Laboratory Professionals
Subject: Laboratory Update: Information about Emergency Use Authorization for 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel
Level: Laboratory Update
This message is to ensure that clinical laboratories are aware that CDC has developed a new laboratory test kit called the CDC’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel, for use in testing patient respiratory specimens for 2019-nCoV. On February 4, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to enable emergency use of the test kit in the United States. All EUA documents are available on the FDA website.
The test kit will be available for ordering today from the International Reagent Resource (IRR). Formerly, U.S. diagnostic testing for 2019-nCoV was only being conducted at CDC; however, the FDA EUA and distribution of the tests will allow 2019-nCoV testing to take place at laboratories designated by CDC. This includes U.S. state and local public health laboratories and Department of Defense (DoD) laboratories.
Clinical laboratories should NOT attempt viral isolation from specimens collected from 2019-nCoV persons under investigation (PUIs). For interim guidelines for collecting, handling, and testing clinical specimens from PUIs for 2019-nCoV, please see the CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus website.
The FDA website lists current EUA assays, and also includes a link to terminated EUA assays. Each pathogen-specific EUA includes the device-specific Letter of Authorization, fact sheets, and manufacturer instructions/package inserts. These documents are updated when amendments are made (e.g., additional specimen types, extraction methods, procedural clarifications), so check the website routinely to ensure your laboratory staff members have the most up-to-date information.
Medical school councilors have good intentions in mind when they steer medical students who realize that direct patient care isn’t their strong suit into pathology. But I am different kind of pathologist – the one who sees (or talks to) patients every day. I am a member of unique subspecialty – Transfusion Medicine – which is the most patient-centric subspecialty of all pathology subspecialties. And, contrary to the popular wisdom, I like seeing patients.
Don’t get me wrong though, my heart and soul still live in the lab, deeply rooted in understanding test performance, troubleshooting and quality control. But direct patient care helps to put all the work I have done in the lab into a perspective.
One program that became especially dear to my heart is our chronic RBC exchange program for the kids and adults with sickle cell anemia who have high risk of developing serious complications from the disease, such as stroke, acute chest syndrome, and severe iron overload. As an apheresis physician I see these patients quite frequently due to the nature of the program – chronic RBC exchanges every 4 to 6 weeks. This also means that I quickly had to learn quite a lot not only about managing the exchanges, but also about patients’ success and failures, spend time explaining to parents the benefits of the program and engaging them to maintain compliance with rigorous schedule. The work is not immediately rewarding. All the adjustments I do to the plan of care show changes in lab values in a month or two at best. But it is not entirely about numbers. Another aspect that makes this program special is when you notice that the kids you treat are doing better at school, have less ED visits and overall live a more fulfilling life.
Sometimes the patient interaction is not as direct as in the case of the sickle cell RBC exchange program. For example, being part of the obstetric team that cares for the patient with severe hemolytic disease of fetus and newborn is also extremely rewarding. And the more challenging clinical question is the more rewarding it is in the end. Just this summer we had a patient who developed an antibody to very high frequency antigen that is present in 99.7% of the population and finding the right donor for intrauterine transfusion involved quite a few people in at least 3 cities. When all the pages, phone calls, emails, and personal conversations between me and residents, obstetricians, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, and blood suppliers result in a positive outcome for mom and baby – I feel elated. And who wouldn’t?! That is why I enjoy what I do!
-Aleh Bobr MD is currently the medical director of blood bank and tissue services at University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, NE. He did his residency in Anatomic and Clinical pathology and Fellowship in Transfusion Medicine at Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN. Prior to that he did his post-doctoral research fellowship in Immunology with focus on dendritic cell biology at University of Minnesota and Yale University. He received his medical degree from Vitebsk State Medical University in Vitebsk, Belarus. Current interests include application of apheresis, platelet refractoriness.
An 80 year old female had a history of chronic iron deficiency anemia with unknown cause and comorbidities included hypothyroidism, congestive heart failure (CHF), severe aortic stenosis and COPD. The patient presented at the ED with initial presentation with increasing shortness of breast, NYHA class 3-4. She was admitted to the hospital for further treatment for CHF, as well hyperventilation, sleep apnea and COPD. Her serum iron and iron saturation were tested and results were 2 umol/L (reference range for iron: 10-29 umol/L) and 7% (reference range: 14-51%), respectively. Part of her investigations included a qualitative fecal test to screen for gastrointestinal bleeding. The immunochemical fecal occult blood test was performed using a CLIA waived Hema Screen SpecificTM POCT test (Immunostics, Inc, USA) in the hospital lab. Hema Screen Specific test is a qualitative, sandwich dye conjugated immunoassay that uses a combination of monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies to detect the globin component of hemoglobin in the fecal samples. The manufacture recommended using Hema Screen Specific test in routine physical examines, hospital monitoring of bleeding in patients and for screening for colorectal cancer or gastrointestinal bleeding for any source (statement from the product package insert).
The specimen submitted to the lab was markedly red (Image 1), yet Hema screen test returned a negative result. Since this device is designed to detect occult blood in fecal samples, a prozone effect was suspected, as the stool appeared to contain overt hemorrhage. The specimen was reanalyzed with serial dilutions by a factor of 5, 10, and at 100 × dilution. The FIT result became clearly positive for blood (Image 2). The patient received a colonoscopy, which revealed internal hemorrhoids, severe diverticulosis in the left colon, as well as multiple angiodysplastic lesions. One such lesion was in the ascending colon and was actively bleeding at the time of colonoscopy. The others, which were not bleeding, were distributed in the proximal ascending colon, hepatic flexure, and proximal transverse colon. All angiodysplastic lesions were treated with argon plasma coagulation.
Moreover, we have tested the device with another bloody fecal sample during the initial evaluation. When an appropriate dilution factor was used, the prozone effect begins to lose its interference as show in Image 3.
The prozone effect (or Hook effect) has long been appreciated as a source of interference in immunoassays.1 It typically occurs in sandwich assays, of which the FIT test is an example.2 When the concentration of the analyte is excessively high, it oversaturates the capture and detection antibodies in favor of forming single antibody:analyte complexes, rather than sandwiches. This results in a false negative result where the assay is unable to detect the analyte. The solution to the prozone effect is serial dilution to lower the concentration of the analyte.
The FIT test is designed to detect microscopic amounts of blood, hence its function in screening for fecal occult blood. A number of hospital labs use this test in an acute care setting to screening bleeding in patients. However, its capacity is oversaturated in specimens containing overt hemorrhage, as in our patient. In these cases it is nevertheless important to prove that the red color of the specimen is truly due to blood, as bright red stool can be caused by a wide range of dietary factors. Some examples are red food coloring, beets, cranberries, and tomato juice.3 If these possibilities are not ruled out, the patient may become subject to the risks of unnecessary endoscopy. Serial dilution of the specimen is extremely useful in this type of situation.
Dasgupta A, Wahed A. Clinical Chemistry, Immunology and Laboratory Quality Control: A Comprehensive Review for Board Preparation, Certification and Clinical Practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2014. 2.11.
Allison JE, Fraser CG, Halloran SP, Young GP. Population Screening for Colorectal Cancer Means Getting FIT: The Past, Present, and Future of Colorectal Cancer Screening Using the Fecal Immunochemical Test for Hemoglobin (FIT). Gut and Liver. 2014 Mar;8(2):117-30. https://doi.org/10.5009/gnl.2014.8.2.117
-Hao Li, MD is a currently a first year anatomical pathological resident at Western University, London ON, Canada. Prior to be a pathology resident, he was a neurosurgery resident at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon SK, Canada. When he was at the University of Saskatchewan, he spent his third year primarily in neuropathology, with also some general anatomical pathology and clinical pathology. Through these experiences, he has come to realize that his passion and calling lay more in pathology than in surgery. He has successfully transferred into pathology, and started a new residency in anatomical pathology in July 2019. Having a background in the clinical neurosciences, he hopes to eventually pursue a fellowship in neuropathology, and possess the skill set to practice both anatomical pathology and neuropathology.
A 72 year old man was admitted to the hospital for an aneurysm repair. The physician ordered a type and crossmatch for 6 units of blood in preparation for surgery. The patient history included surgery in 2016 during which he was transfused with 4 units of RBCs.
patient’s blood type: A positive
antibody screen: negative
history: anti Jkb (2016)
6 Jkb negative units were found and full crossmatches were performed. One of the 6 donor units was incompatible. What is the most probable explanation for these findings?
If the patient has a negative antibody screen, and no history of an antibody, most facilities would do an electronic crossmatch or an immediate spin crossmatch. The immediate spin (abbreviated) crossmatch will simply verify ABO compatibility. However, if the patient has a positive antibody screen, we must identify the antibody, phenotype the patient, and do a full AHG crossmatch with donor units that are antigen negative for the corresponding antibody. In this case, the patient had a history of an antibody, so the antibody must be honored, and antigen negative units must be chosen for transfusion.
Kidd antibodies demonstrate dosage, are often weak, and can be found in combination with other antibodies. Because if this, they can be notoriously difficult to detect. They are usually IgG and are made in response to transfusion or pregnancy. Jkb has an antigen frequency of about 73% in the white population and about 43% in the black population. To find antigen negative blood, we consider that about 27% of units would be antigen negative. The tech working on the sample screened 21 units and found 6 that were Jkb negative.
AHG crossmatch results:
unit 1: compatible
unit 2: compatible
unit 3: compatible
unit 4: 3+ at AHG
unit 5: compatible
unit 6: compatible
There are 2 possible scenarios for the above results. A crossmatch is a test between donor’s red blood cells and patient’s plasma. Antigens, we know, are on red blood cells and antibodies are detected in the plasma. So, with a negative antibody screen, crossmatch incompatibility is due either to a patient antibody to a low incidence antigen on the donor red blood cells, or a donor cells with a positive direct antiglobulin test. We can easily rule in or out a positive donor DAT by performing a DAT on the segment. If the donor unit has a positive DAT, the unit should be quarantined and the positive DAT reported to the collecting facility. If the donor unit has a negative DAT, the patient likely has an antibody to a low incidence antigen.
Low frequency antigens are uncommon, but antibodies that recognize them are less rare. Fortunately, for patients with these antibodies to low frequency antigens, finding antigen negative compatible blood is easy. As we can see, 5 of the 6 chosen units were negative for the unknown low frequency antigen and were antiglobulin crossmatch compatible. The low prevalence of the antigen makes compatible blood readily available. If transfusion is necessary, it should not be delayed while waiting for identification of the antibody.
In this case, the antibody screen was repeated and the negative result was verified. In many cases, it may not be possible for a lab to identify the antibody because the lab may not have the necessary panel cells or typing reagents. Yet, these antibodies to low incidence antigens that react at AHG can be clinically significant and cause severe hemolytic transfusion reactions. To identify the antibody, you may need to send the sample to a reference lab for testing against a panel of reagent red cells that express low incidence antigens. Alternately, the donor red cells that were incompatible can be tested against known antibodies to low prevalence antigens to help identify the antibody.
In this patient, anti-Wra was identified. The incompatible donor unit was verified to be Wra positive. Wra is part of the Diego system, usually IgG, and has ben implicated in hemolytic transfusion reactions.
One of the reasons I have written up this case is questions my Transfusion Medicine students often ask about exam and exam prep questions concerning incompatibility. Below are 2 questions to give examples of the confusion.
“At the indirect antiglobulin phase of testing, there is no agglutination between patient serum and screening cells. One of 3 donor units was incompatible.. The most probable explanation for these findings is that the:
patient has an antibody directed against a high incidence antigen
patient has an antibody directed against a low incidence antigen
donor has an antibody directed against donor cells
donor has a positive antibody screen”5
“Which of the following would most likely be responsible for an incompatible antiglobulin crossmatch?
recipient’s red cells possess a low incidence antigen
anti-K antibody in donor serum
recipient’s red cells are polyagglutinable
donor red cells have a positive direct antiglobulin test”4
I am asked why is one answer “low prevalence antigen” and one answer “positive DAT”? I typically ask questions of my students to let them reason out the answer. Take a careful look at the words antigen and antibody. Remember that a DAT is a test of red cells, the IAT tests for antibodies in plasma. A crossmatch uses donor red cells against patient plasma. Therefore, even though these are both reasons for the incompatibility of one out of multiple units, each question only has one answer of a common reason for such incompatibility. Be sure to read questions and use your theory and knowledge of testing when encountering discrepancies and problems in Blood Bank. To all of my students: Happy Studying for your ASCP exam!
Fung, Mark K., Technical Manual 18th ed, Bethesda: AABB, 2014.
Harmening, Denise M. Modern Blood Banking and Transfusion Practices, 7th edition, 2019.
Schonewille, Henk, et al. “The importance of antibodies against low‐incidence RBC antigens in complete and abbreviated cross‐matching”. The Journal of AABB. 20 June 2003.
-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.
Welcome back everybody! Thank you for all the engagement on my last post, Up In Smoke¸ where I discussed the plenary publications surrounding the vaping crisis and EVALI as new pulmonary pathology entity. This month, let’s start 2020 off right. After the holiday break and going on some of my last pathology residency interviews, I’d like to reflect on this new year by taking a look at 20 exciting things on the horizon for those of us in pathology and laboratory medicine!
So, let’s take a look at 2020 with some 20/20 vision… (sorry, not sorry)
20. Big, big, big, big data
Last year, Elsevier’s Clinical Solutions Director in China discussed three topics that would impact our profession in 2019—so let’s start there. These first three go hand-in-hand in prepping the stage for 2020. Up first: the never-ending explosion of biomedical information and the continuing tidal wave of health data we don’t even know what to do with just yet! It’s a very interesting estimate that, by 2020 (aka now!) the whole sum of medical knowledge will double every 73 days. How on earth are we to manage, when compared to 1950 it would have taken 50 years to double? Well, the argument in the linked Elsevier blogpost discusses how evidence-based inquiry databases will store and organize this knowledge for us: think UpToDate, or ExpertPath, or ImmunoQuery…some of you are nodding your heads in relief, great, I’ll move on.
19. Precision Medicine
The second topic last year’s Elsevier’s blogpost discussed was the growth and rapid development of highly specific, targeted, individualized treatment plans. The mainstay example is of course how oncology treatments are moving away from one-size-fits-all chemotherapies to individualized mutation-specific immunomodulating therapy. (We’re moving like melting glaciers but moving nonetheless.) I was definitely well equipped with my ASCP online CE credits as I found myself discussing testing patients during my heme/onc training for PDL-1 and other tailored targets. We’re just starting to ride this wave and it’s definitely growing fast.
18. AI in healthcare (part 1)
Yep. I went there—it’s exciting! But notice I’ll come around after some other topics to really get into the heart of AI in path. Basically, the last point in the blogpost discussed the way smart software has been growing in medicine; particularly with radiology and surgery, using advancements in robotics and detection software to predict and stratify clinical information for patient care. Within this context let me quote them directly for you, “…there remains some uncertainty around the role of AI and its true impact on pathology, it is important to recognize that AI-based technologies or machines will never replace pathologists. Instead, such innovations will play an assistive role, augmenting the decision-making capabilities of pathologists and helping them perform better and faster…” All my pathologist friends may now exhale. It’s going to be okay. We’ll talk more about this at #10.
17. New Tech, New Toys
Pathologists are like the 007’s of the clinical team…at least when it comes to developing tech. There are so many new gadgets and tools we clinicians have available to us today. I delivered a recent TEDx talk where I discussed the “unrecognizable future” of medicine—and obviously now look for new and exciting ways to tell people I gave a TEDx talk. The important thing is that 73 days of doubling medical knowledge is happening so fast we don’t even know what we have available to us! Finger-print drug tests, smartphone facial capillary blood pressures, liquid biopsies, virtual MS-based immunohistochemical stains that never actually stain a single cell, cytology AI, deep data mining of free text pathology reports…it’s not a short list. It’s exciting, and we should all be sharing and collaborating to use these exciting tools together in creative ways for positive outcomes!
16. No More Silos
Last year, I wrote a few pieces here on Lablogatory that mentioned High-Reliability Organizations (HROs) which require absolutely full sharing of responsibility as well as knowledge in order to solve problems and improve patient-care outcomes. There are many ways siloed thinking can harm the progress of any institution. It takes leadership, creative problem-solving, transparency, and teamwork. In the coming months of 2020, keep an eye out for pockets within your organizational environment that act as black holes or veils to keep pieces of critical data from the rest of the team. Encourage discussions between you and your peers, check biases about what you think might be important for one team vs. another, and try to share successes and failures as a group.
15. New Types of Colleagues
What I just mentioned about engaging in new conversations with folks you might not have worked with before—its not groundbreaking, its just good practice! In order to tear down #16’s silos, we’ve got to seek out and explore new ways to collaborate with colleagues outside our everyday scope. There will always be discussions about generational divides and differences that create culture strife in the workplace, or political/opinionated schisms that divide even the most cohesive of medical specialties. (I’m looking at you ACOG, ACP, ASCCP, and others: it’s Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, can we just agree on some guidelines already…) Soapbox over. But seriously, this isn’t a new concept. Feel like a lab half filled with boomers and millennials can’t make the cut? Well, the Harvard Business Review gave us great recommendations for this exact type of interpersonal growth exercise—in the NINETIES! The take home message: having an open culture and proactive leadership allows for fruitful exchange and growth!
14. Digital Pathology!
It’s coming. You can’t stop it. It’s exciting. I don’t care what you think. Well I actually do care, but don’t knock digi-path till it grows into whatever it’s going to become. The desk of the (anatomic) pathologist-of-the-future will look a lot different from today and that’s really cool. Once upon a time, a very long, long time ago—in the eighties maybe—radiologists still had films where we actually used radiation to change the exposure of images to be read over a light box. Classic scene, right? Doctor, the x-ray is ready! *THWIP* *CLICK* *BUZZ* and cue the contemplative stare on the wall light. Then, they went digital and get to hang out in the dark with four computer screens and coffee, and really comfy chairs. I mean what a form of progress, can’t deny.
13. MS Methodologies
In my mailbox this month, is another excellent edition of The Pathologist and in it there’s a great article on Mass Spec imaging transitioning from a research tool to a clinical one. Woah. We’ve all talked about and praised MALDI-Tof methods for microbiologic assays and detection, but the expanse of mass spectrometry has developed rather quickly. Now, it’s looking for a niche in routine laboratory diagnostics outside of the old chemistry analyzer… It’s a new, non-destructive way of examining tissue and gleaning data from the smallest pieces of gross specimens. We’re onto something here, keep an eye on MSI.
12. Molecular—Need I say More?
Same edition of The Pathologist, about 25 pages back: a discussion on the value of molecular Next Generation Sequencing. I’ve already bored half of you, wait! Come back. I agree with you, you can only call it Next-Gen so many times before a whole generation of laboratorians get bored of talking about new tumor markers or mutations. But what’s happening with NGS testing that you should know? Simply put, there are NGS analyzers that are faster, with smaller footprints, combined with smarter software that is making molecular more feasible for laboratories that used to shy away from the notion of including NGS or LDTs in their lab testing menus. This means more labs, running more molecular, for more specific populations, in real time that can collaborate with that many more new colleagues while breaking silos—well just look up at #18, 17, 16, and 15!
11. Global Health
Dr. Dana Razzano recently interviewed me for her global health series, and we got the chance to talk about the important intersection of laboratory medicine and global public health. Getting involved in a community—especially for those of us in healthcare—often includes a survey of what kind of health challenges you face. For some it’s access to clean resources like water, for others it’s a complex system of reimbursement and billing issues that complicate delivery of care, or even more basic assessments reveal high rates of local infections with preventable illness. But you can’t tackle infrastructure change, political reform, or vaccine education single-handedly. Global health is an increasing part of our global world and, if we stay true to our professional values, we should be at the forefront.
10. AI in Healthcare (part 2)
Oh I told you I’d come back to this. Some folks are still apprehensive about AI—that’s ok—I am too, but only because I want to make sure it’s done right. Don’t expect any Skynet stuff, we’re not going that deep. So let me tell you some of the things I got to see on the residency interview trail that piqued my interests. At one hospital system, I saw plans for their anatomic pathology department to go fully digital with augmented AI software to help score mitoses and other morphologic traits by 2025. At another institution, I saw plans for data mining historical free text pathology reports to predict and stratify future specimens before they even got signed out! At a third system, I saw the utilization of smart software to predict clinical lab values for a patient’s personalized reference range…pre-analytically! This stuff is coming in hot so watch for it! What AI-related advancements are you seeing in your neck of the lab?
9. Patient Consultation
Another thing noteworthy of my residency trail are institutions which are championing the face-to-face consultative role of the clinical pathologist in patient care. We, at the end of the day, are consultants to all; physicians and patients alike. And many in our field are celebrating this role by pushing the envelope toward a progressive and effective future for pathology and laboratory medicine at large.
8. Graphic Medicine
Graphic medicine is fantastic! I wish I could have discovered this years ago. Nevertheless, in the last two years I have sought out and read numerous pieces which bridge a significant gap between clinician and patient. And if we in laboratory medicine plan to reach patients more directly, we shouldn’t be afraid to come up with creative solutions to communicate with them. My (current) approach, #PathDoodles which I post occasionally on social media, attempts to explain concepts in pathology to the everyday lay person. What will you do to reach your patients?
7. Wellness Programs
Another interesting thing I encountered on the residency interview trail was the way in which different programs addressed the concept of wellness. Some did, some did not, but everyone discussed it. Because, after all, it is important; not just for residents and physicians, but medical lab scientists, support staff, and …yes… even administrators. Work and work-life stresses and balance take a psychological and emotional toll, and in order to be happy and healthy we need ways to strengthen our mental health along the way. Last year, Dr. Marissa Saint Martin won a 2018 award from the American Association for Physician Leadership for her work in preparing residency resilience and promoting wellness through structured curricula at Loyola Health System and Mount Sinai in Miami. She’s been featured with ASCP numerous times as well as in The Pathologist. It’s promising to see such strong support for residency trainees; keep an eye out for other praise-worthy programs this year!
6. Social Media
You caught me. I can’t make any predictions about the future of health care delivery, education, or collaboration without touting the importance of social media. As a member of the official ASCP Social Media Team (Go #ASCPSoMeTeam!), I’m a proud contributor not only to the content that we publish online, but to the message that unifies and spreads our #StrongerTogether mantra. Social media is fantastic tool to reach new colleagues, spread new ideas, and make new advancements in both our field and in reaching people where they are.
5. Moving Out of the Basement
One of the most memorable interviews I had this season was with a transfusion specialist who recounted to me his memory of training in pathology during his early days of residency. Green and eager, he told me how he remembered being taken on a tour of the facilities to be shown his desk/work space and upon reaching an underground level of the hospital building a sign read ‘BASEMENT’ with an adjacent one ‘PATHOLOGY’ …he paused to say it out loud, “What’s a basement-pathologist?” We bonded over the stifled stereotypes in our work and shared stories of great and terrible lab spaces we’ve seen. Some programs are renovating, some (for better) are moving on up… How are your facilities?
4. The Pipeline Problem
Well I mentioned stereotypes. I’ve talked about it before. You already know about shortages in pathology from physicians to lab scientists. And don’t get me started on pay—especially for lab workers and those in forensic path! But this is a topic I think we’re going to see a boon in media coverage in the coming years, starting now. Some of our awesome colleagues are talking about the “pipeline problem” from a myriad of angles: addressing medical student clerkships, exposure to laboratory workflow in school curriculum, advertising the infinite possibilities of careers within our profession…and more. CAP, ASCP, USCAP, and other professional societies have done amazing work in their due diligence to represent our field and advocate for the advancement of our work and image. A former CAP president once said, “Pathology is what a pathologist does,” and well, it’s a good start. Where do you see solutions to our pipeline problem?
3. PA’s and… CPA’s?
Now this, this is a cool concept and it’s the first time I’ve seen it. We all know and love our pathology assistants (PAs)—especially resident pathologists—as they make the training, education, and workload a better process for learning. They have awesome training and operate essentially as highly specialized clinicians in anatomic pathology. But what about the clinical, laboratory medicine side of things…? I recently saw a program advertised at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that trains clinical PAs for consultative and ancillary support roles to the clinical pathologist! Fantastic! Read more about it here! There are a growing number of DCLS (doctor of clinical laboratory science) professionals, now we’ve got a new pipeline to invite talented folks to work with us in a new way.
2. I’ll Have a Residency!
I have seen so many fantastic programs across the US these past few months, and so many decisions go into the way medical graduates rank programs to match into. To learn how the AAMC/NRMP matching system works, watch this video (maybe with some calming tea). We’ll see where I end up matching to, but I’m excited for the next chapter and to really dive into pathology even more!
Obviously, the most important thing to keep an eye out for this year is you! Your goals, your ambition, your plans, your ideas and thoughts, and all the ways you contribute to our fantastic profession! I encourage you all to share, collaborate, and be creative with the ways in which we advance the future of laboratory medicine and continue to keep in mind that we do these things for our patients everywhere.
Thanks for reading, see you next time!
–Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM completed his BS at Loyola University Chicago and his MS at Rush University. He writes about experiences through medical school through the lens of a medical lab scientist with interests in hematopathology, molecular, bioethics, transfusion medicine, and graphic medicine. He is currently a 2020 AP/CP Residency Applicant and actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD
I wrote last as a student in the medical technologist program at NorthShore University Healthcare System in Evanston. Now, as my first post as a certified medical technologist, I wanted to share what the journey was like becoming certified, finding a job, and transitioning into the professional arena.
Throughout the program, I felt relatively confident in the material and what we were learning and applying in rotations. We took about 1000 tests over the course of the program – at least that’s what it felt like. When the ASCP BOC exam began peaking its head, I wasn’t too intimidated. To me, it was just another test.
The first step was registering for the exam. My intention was to take the exam the day after I graduated, but I was bad and waited one month prior to graduation to register (it can take up to 45 business days to process). Don’t do as I did! Thankfully, the process was quicker than expected and I was only delayed one week after graduation.
The last four weeks of my program were intimidating to say the least! We had cumulative finals in addition to simulated board exams. Therefore, my BOC exam studying began through preparing for these. One of the most valuable resources that I cannot recommend enough is LabCE by MediaLab. I first discovered LabCE through their manual UA and differential simulators, but then discovered that they have testing simulators which our program director used to create practice exams for subjects and for the BOC exam. Their questions range in difficulty and each one has an explanation, which presents a great way to study (at least for me). It helped me develop study guides on material I consistently got wrong or completely forgot.
Two weeks before my exam, I discovered the BOC CLS study guide. I immediately paid for overnight shipping and received it the next day. This turned into my main study tool – I do best quizzing myself, then reading up on topics I got wrong. I would be lying if I said I felt confident when I received that book and went through the first 50 questions. I felt incompetent. Despite my previous review and studying, I felt as if I discovered an entirely new language. The book is very detailed and covers everything from a to z for laboratory science, with some topics only being covered briefly in school. As time went on, the shock factor wore off and I continued to focus on the things I no longer remembered and believed were important.
Despite the endless hours studying, I felt that there was much left to cover and the night before my exam I remember feeling overwhelmed. There is only so much information the human brain can store without the hands-on experience that ingrains what you learn. Throughout the test I felt as if I were failing, something that seems to be common place among BOC test takers. When it was time to see my score, my hands became clammy. Despite the suspense, I passed! When I received my scores later, I did much better than expected!
So, my concluding advice while preparing for the BOC exam is to focus on summarizations of your notes and to review all your formulas throughout your program. Go through as many practice exams as possible to help you see where you’re lacking and to prepare you for the wording on the BOC exam. Throughout my program, I would type up one to two-page notes for exams for later review. These were helpful when I had to go back and review things I did not remember. Additionally, despite the amount of studying you do, there is bound to be information you will not know and that’s okay. You know more than you think you know and through review you will only increase the recoverable information that is already in your head.
Lastly, I wanted to speak about the process of a new grad finding a job and transitioning from a student to a health professional. As I went through rotations, my passion for each specialty changed. At first, I wanted to be a generalist because I wanted to be more marketable and do everything. Then it was blood bank, then micro, and then came molecular (yay!). I began my job search about 2 months before graduation, and applied for those jobs about a month and a half before graduation. Being a soon-to-be new grad, I knew that I might not end up in the exact field I desired right away (which was molecular). I applied for mostly blood bank, micro, and molecular jobs – as these were of the most interest to me.
I applied for about 6-7 jobs in total and I ended up discovering, and eventually obtaining, my current position as an HLA molecular scientist at Northwestern’s transplant lab in Chicago. Throughout the interview process, being 100% honest of what you do and don’t know is the most important advice. Most employers ask a lot of detailed questions only to gauge where they need to start in your training. A good rule of thumb to remember is that if you’re a new grad being interviewed, then the employer is already okay with the fact that you don’t have much experience or knowledge of the specialty.
Before starting, a lot of people warned me about specializing immediately after graduating. While I hear their concerns, for me I plan on staying in the molecular field for the rest of my career – there are many opportunities and molecular is only becoming more and more advanced/widespread.
Now that I am 2 months into my job, I have fallen in love with it. There is endless opportunity to continue learning and to challenge myself. Walking into this specialty, I had two HLA lectures and nothing more. While my first month and a half mostly consisted of DNA isolation and cell lineage DNA isolation for chimerism tests, I have finally started training on an assay and data analysis for engraftment monitoring (chimerism). As a new grad in such a specific specialty, I have accepted that there will be a large learning curve. My advice is to keep your mind open to learning new things and fuel your motivation to learn more and more. Never stop asking questions and never turn down resources others hand you that have helped them.
As I gain more experience in the HLA world, I plan on writing articles tailored to this field and sharing what I learn. I hope my experience as a new grad helps others approaching this new time in their lives and gives them a sense of direction/confidence.
-Ben Dahlstrom is a recent graduate of the NorthShore University HealthSystem MLS program. He currently works as a molecular technologist for Northwestern University in their transplant lab, performing HLA typing on bone marrow and solid organ transplants. His interests include microbiology, molecular, immunology, and blood bank.