Never a Dull Moment

As an international laboratory consultant, there is never a dull moment.  One minute you are working with energized people from another country engaged in spirited dialogue, learning and sharing experiences—and the next you are up very late with your team colleagues in a smoke-filled hotel lounge with multiple computers plugged into walls trying to capture information into an assessment template not designed for the technically challenged.  It’s better than Sudoku for mental exercise!

I recall one trip where the biggest challenge was keeping our notes and information straight.  We were scheduled to visit two laboratories on the same day; small but relatively full service labs, so there was much to review, discuss and digest in order to understand their capability and progress.  Some people can type notes into a laptop, but I find that a pencil and paper are the most useful tools. Working with people, making eye contact and facilitating interactive discussion provides a backdrop for what you are able to observe.  After a walk-through and overview, questions and comments, log reviews and notations it is imperative to elaborate on your notes and add comments immediately after an assessment visit.  Believe me, after 6 laboratories in 4 days covering >1000 miles, they can very easily “all run together” if you are not careful and diligent.  Laboratorians  tend to be overly organized and a bit obsessive about documenting things—it’s the nature of the beast, since we live our career lives in data production and information dissemination—and it has to be correct, all the time, for every patient. I smile as I remember many nights on that trip with my ASCP colleague Wendy, plugged into the wall in a deserted hotel lobby and barely able to see the computer screens as we compared and contrasted assessment scores late into the night before getting up before dawn to take off and do it all over again.  Well, it was all in a day’s work!  She and I will both admit to wishing we’d had a little more sleep, and we would also tell you we wouldn’t have missed it!

So if you find yourself up late at night studying, preparing for a presentation, catching up on journals or even waiting for a teenager to get home at the appointed hour, I recommend keeping a hot cup of tea and some local chocolate near at hand.  I can highly recommend chocolate from Kazakhstan, and also from Namibia— contact me at bsumwalt@pacbell.net and I’ll send you the name of my favorite brands.  But even if you can’t read the label, the pictures are all you really need!

Blog 9 Working Late

 

Cheers,
Beverly Sumwalt

Pain Management Drug Testing

Traditionally, urine drug testing has looked for the presence of drugs that should not be there. You are hoping for a completely negative drug test. Because tests for measuring drugs in urine haven’t always been incredibly accurate at the low end of the measurement range, and interferences from other compounds can cause false positives and negatives, back in the early 1990s the Department of Health and Human Services provided cut-off concentrations for abused drugs that gave the best discrimination between samples that actually contain those compounds and those that don’t. What that means today is that if the concentration of the drug in the sample is higher than the cut-off, that sample is positive for the tested drug. If the concentration is less than the cut-off, the test is negative, whether there is actually any drug present or not.

How is pain management drug testing different? When testing urine samples for drugs for pain management, you are looking for the presence of drugs that SHOULD be there. In essence, you’re hoping for a positive drug test. Controlling pain with medication is a massive industry, but to keep prescribing those drugs, the physician needs proof that the patient is actually taking the medication and not diverting it for sale or use by someone else. Thus pain management drug testing looks for the presence of the specific drug and may actually require a quantitative result rather than a simple positive/negative.

In addition, although the assays used for both types of drug testing may be the same (mass spectrometry or immunoassay), traditional urine drug testing often only includes drugs in the major classes of drugs of abuse. Pain management drug testing must also include specific drugs prescribed therapeutically for pain, like methadone and oxycodone. Thus point-of-care (POC) devices for drugs of abuse drug testing may not be adequate for pain management drug testing.

Here is a list of drugs usually included in POC testing panels:

Drugs of Abuse
Amphetamines
Opiates
Cocaine
Benzodiazepines
Tetrahydrocannabinoids
Barbiturates
Phencyclidine

Pain Management Testing

Amphetamines
Opiates
Cocaine
Benzodiazepines
Tetrahydrocannabinoids
Barbiturates
Phencyclidine
Oxycodone
Methadone
Propoxyphene

-Patti Jones

Acquisitions and Takeovers

Early in my MBA classes I had one professor with over 35 years in Healthcare consulting say to the class, “There are very few examples of actual mergers; usually someone is acquired or someone is taken over.” This resonated with me when my previous hospital was informed that in 90 days we would be closing the doors. Now, it resonates with hospitals at an increasingly rapid rate. If you’re a person who loves keywords, “integration” will be your new favorite on the list. I currently sit on two integration committees (Blood Bank, Education) where we discuss the different ways we do things and how we can standardize our procedures to make sure that a patient receives the same testing at any Cleveland Clinic location. As big healthcare systems acquire more and more independent entities, integration will be the axiomatic factor to their future success.

If you’re a small community hospital laboratory manager/supervisor that has just received word you are going to join in a partnership with a large system, what next? The really big issues that laboratories deal with are instrumentation and supply chain. Once your service contracts are up, you’ll need to switch to the systems the big laboratory uses. You will be thrust into a much larger network of people and more importantly, talent. If you have open spots you will have a larger talent pool to pull from much easier than going to the job sites.

The biggest challenge you will have is watching your services be consolidated. If you were a full service hospital you will more than likely lose some services and this can have an effect on your test menu in the lab. Low volume but high profit tests will almost always be consolidated into a single location to get the most profit out of it. The send out department of your lab may become much busier because of this increased workload. The system will try its absolute hardest to lower their cost structure and this will include changes in your laboratory.

On a personal level the first thing to do as a manager/supervisor when you find out your hospital is being acquired is don’t panic. Very rarely do they come in immediately and “clean house”. They usually have a period of time when talent is evaluated and then decisions are made. The real question becomes do you want to work for the new system? The integration period can be difficult and time consuming. If you feel your hospital may be acquired, stay prepared. Keep your resume updated and just scan the job sites every once and a while and see what is out there. My biggest piece of advice is don’t get caught in a situation you have no control over. You are the manager/supervisor of the laboratory so you are the reason that it succeeds or fails. These are the same reasons the managerial staff is kept or let go once an acquisition has been completed.

This consolidation is only going to increase as the new healthcare legislation takes effect. Decreasing reimbursement from the government will force entities to combine forces and form systems of healthcare. Put yourself at the forefront and know what in your test menu that you could do without and what you could use from a larger system to be more profitable. When the time comes you are the talent they are looking to acquire, not take over.

-Matthew Herasuta

A Possible Method to Diagnose Invasive Meningococcal Infection

Saying the word “meningitis” is a sure-fire way to scare parents of young children or college students. Invasive infections caused by Neisseria meningitidis are rare but serious. Mortality rates can run around 15%; complications include amputations due to tissue necrosis and hearing loss. In short, N. meningitidis infections are nothing to mess around with.

In order to avoid death and extremity loss, the infection needs to be diagnosed early. Trouble is, the early symptoms can be similar to those of a run-of-the-mill viral infection. Some patients do not exhibit the elevated white blood cell count so common in bacterial infections. Without clear signposts to guide the way, how can clinicians catch this fast-moving infection early in its course? A handful of esoteric hematology parameters might hold the key.

Demissie et al recently published this paper in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal about using neutrophil counts to diagnose meningococcal infection in children. It’s behind a paywall, but here’s the gist:

-Your automated hematology analyzer needs to report immature white blood cells.

-Using total white blood cell (WBC) counts or total neutrophil counts alone is insufficient.

-The parameters to check are absolute neutrophil count (ANC), immature neutrophil count (INC), and immature-to-total neutrophil ratio (ITR).

-Patients with invasive meningococcal infection (or, the authors also say, a serious bacterial infection) display abnormalities in at least one of the three parameters.

What do you think about these guidelines? Do you think they’d be effective in diagnosing invasive meningococcal infections?

-Kelly Swails

What Type of “Graduated Responsibility” Do We Need in Order to Gain Competency?

Building on the brief historical piece I wrote last week about the progression toward “competency-based” resident training and the ultimate outcome of evaluation by the Milestones, I’d like to ask, “How can residents achieve competency in training?”

A resident recently stated at the most recent CAP Residents Forum that true graduated responsibility means to be able to verify a case, whether surgical pathology or frozen section, and I would guess clinical pathology results were implied, without the oversight of an attending. As a PGY-2, I am not sure I can agree with that statement. But who knows, maybe closer to graduation, I might. How many of us would be a Milestones rating of “4” by the end of our funded 3 or 4 years, and therefore, competent enough to theoretically verify a case on our own?

I would like to repeat some statistics from the 2013 ASCP Fellowship and Job Market Surveys: only 16% of residents felt they were ready to sign out general pathology cases upon graduation and 95% intended to seek fellowship positions. 59% of PGY-3 and PGY-4 felt that they needed fellowship training to feel confident in general pathology and 17% to address a perceived educational deficiency. So, if this is a true, then the majority of us may not feel comfortable verifying general pathology cases, with the possibility of malpractice, even as a PGY-4.

Even though I cannot verify cases, I still feel that my program has given me the opportunity for graduated responsibility. For instance, I began to enter my diagnoses into our electronic surgical pathology reports before the end of my first month of training. Then during sign out, my attending would teach me as well as correct my diagnosis prior to verification. As I mentioned before, I learn by doing and even more so by being wrong, than by reading or being lectured to so this works for me. I have the safety net of being allowed to be a trainee while applying and improving my developing surgical pathology skills. And for me, being able to verify or not, would not change how I approach my cases or my diagnoses.

Our PGY-2 and above, are encouraged to work up a case (eg, order stains, etc) prior to sign out at our academic and VA hospitals (not sure about the community hospitals since I haven’t rotated at them yet), even if it is not our names that go on the final “dotted line.” We don’t all reach this point at the same time – it is about trust in our knowledge and skills by our attending and our initiative to broach the subject before we can do so. At the start of my PGY-2, I was ordering flow cytometry panels on cases because my attending trusted my hematopathology skills.

So, for me, at least for now, “graduated” responsibility is in the eye of the beholder and I have been nurtured to be where I need to be at this point in my training. I feel that I have the freedom to grow under our system. So, what does “graduated responsibility” mean at your institution? Let me know by leaving a comment.

-Betty Chung

Adventures in Travel–A Very Spooky Moment

Coming up to All Hallows Eve reminds me of a very “spooky” moment with my passport; one that illustrates the odd and scary things that can happen when you are overly “travel tired.”

It’s said the longest flight on the planet is flying from the east coast of the United States to Johannesburg, South Africa.  I’d have to agree; no matter how you book it the flight is over 19 hours in the air, non-stop. It’s a bit of a flying marathon, and makes you a little mentally and physically fatigued just getting there.

I was on my way to Namibia with very tight connections (always a little stressful) and on arrival in Jo’burg I had less than an hour to catch the last flight out to Windhoek.  Our schedule for two weeks of laboratory assessments had been carefully arranged and there was no room for error in the schedule—so I HAD to make that flight.  If I missed it, I would be responsible for throwing the entire schedule off and so the pressure was “on.”

As I got off the plane there was a bright young man in an airport vest asking if he could help anyone.  I told him I had a very close connection and didn’t know where I was going, but had to catch the flight to Windhoek.  His eyes got big as he looked at my boarding pass, and said, “Come this way madam, you must hurry, they will be leaving and we have a long run ahead”.  Of course!  He grabbed my suitcase and headed out, I followed with a fuzzy brain and very wobbly legs from sitting so long.  We reached the ticket gate (me gasping for air) and they said “Sorry, we have closed the desk for that flight.”  I was obviously ready to come un-glued, and he said quietly, “Do not worry madam, I have another way to get you there—give me your ticket and passport, and I will run ahead and be sure they don’t leave you—please follow me as quickly as you can!”  In a stupor of exhaustion, I handed him my boarding pass and passport.  He jogged ahead and out a side door marked “Do Not Enter—Tarmac Employees Only” and held it open for me to follow, then ran.

Now you might be saying, “Are you kidding me? You handed a young man built like a Kenyan marathon runner your PASSPORT and BOARDING PASS? And went running across the restricted tarmac??  Which South African jail will we find you in?!”  Well, yes, I did…and when that realization found its way to my conscious brain I kicked it up a notch and ran harder, determined to keep him in sight even if I couldn’t catch him!  We jogged under the belly of two huge planes, around luggage carts, through a garage and a tunnel, and headed straight for a large bus just closing the doors to take a load of passengers to the Windhoek plane.  He waved and shouted and ran in front of the bus…forcing them to stop, waving my passport and boarding pass wildly over his head.  He and the security guard on the bus had a robust and heated discussion while he blocked the closing door and threw my suitcase on the bus. Just as I breathlessly caught up he said, “Madam, they are taking this group to your plane, please hurry to get on…are you OK?”  Completely breathless, I could not answer but shook my head “yes” and could have hugged him.  In some moment of clarity, I reached into my vest pocket and handed him the two twenty dollar bills that I keep there—he refused, saying “No, no madam, this is my job to get you safely to your destination!”  I pressed them into his hand and said, “You have helped me more than you know, thank you for your kindness, do something nice for you and your family, please!”  The bus door closed, the security guard frowned and called me some Swahili name I have yet to translate, and we chugged to the plane.

Suddenly realizing what just happened, I scared myself enough to be very wide awake all the way to Windhoek…

So travel fans, if you are ever on the long journey to Jo’burg, I recommend a very strong cup of coffee on the last leg of the flight.  I personally like coffees grown and harvested in Africa…but any cup will do to help you avoid a fatigue-inspired “spooky passport adventure.”  If you want a few recommendations on wonderful coffees, contact me at bsumwalt@pacbell.net, and let’s have a round of applause please for a young man who works in the Johannesburg airport for his integrity, his smile and his unparalleled customer service!

Cheers,
Beverly Sumwalt