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!

Beverly Sumwalt


How many of you remember the movie “Multiplicity?” If you don’t, Michael Keaton is offered the opportunity to clone himself so he can be many places at once. If you are a supervisor who also finds yourself on the bench you may be wishing for that same offer. With many healthcare organizations trimming the budget and looking to decrease the work force, (Cleveland Clinic wants to trim $330 million from the 2014 budget), finding time for those administrative duties is going to become extremely difficult. Without two or three of you, organization and prioritization will be your biggest allies in the fight against time.

A few things that have helped me in this endless fight are simple yet save me enough time that I do not have to take a lot of work home with me. The first is I have a love/hate relationship with paper. If I can scan it into a PDF file I will. It doesn’t matter if it is one page or 200 I will scan to prevent my desk from looking like a shred box. These PDF files are unalterable, time stamped, and pass as an original document during inspection. Virtual files on your computer take up a lot less space than filing cabinets and in most labs space is at a premium. Second, if you can delegate to staff some of the general duties, paperwork, or reports, do it. The benefit is threefold. You ease up your task list, you empower your employees, and you start to find who among your staff has the ability to fill your spot once you have the opportunity to move up. Yes, mistakes will happen at first but the benefit far outweighs the possible speed bumps.

Organization and prioritization will be your biggest allies in the fight against time.

A third helpful tip is to make templates and use them. If you are not strong in Microsoft Office have someone help you. Setting up the same report each month can take hours in itself. I have an electronic copy ready and available for every paper form I use. Furthermore, for my temperature logs I have 12 months in a file so at the end of the month my technologists can just pull the next month’s forms out and place them in the binder. Nothing needs to be printed or created.

This brings me to my next tip: think ahead. If you know you’re going to need a form each month print them out for the year and place them in an easily accessible folder or drawer.

My final tip, be consistent. If you need to pull a report on a certain day of the month, print it, perform the task associated with it and get rid of it. You don’t want to put it off for an off-bench day you have coming up. You could then get put on the bench because of a call-off, and now you have a mound of paper on your desk collecting dust. There may only be one of you, but you can work like there are more.

-Matthew Herasuta

ASCP’s 2013 Wage Survey

It’s that topic about which no one talks but everyone wonders: how much money do your colleagues make? ASCP answers that question with The American Society for Clinical Pathology’s 2013 Wage Survey of Clinical Laboratories in the United States. In it, you’ll learn the average age of clinical laboratory scientists, which states have the most union representation, and how much the average histotechnologist makes in a year. Take a peek behind the curtain. Who knows? You might strengthen your bargaining position for next year’s performance appraisal in the process.

-Kelly Swails

ACGME Competencies and Milestones: What Does It Take to Be a Good Pathologist?

In 1998, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) advocated the Outcome Project, a competency-based paradigm for resident training. Previously, completion of a residency was based on a fixed number of years of training specific for each specialty. “Competency” to practice was based on the passage of a certifying board exam. Notable changes due to this initiative were the increased use of objective structured clinical exams (OSCE), increased resident engagement in quality improvement and evidence-based medicine projects, and the incorporation of additional didactics and approaches in GME curricula. Given all this, did the requirements for residency completion truly change?

In 2012, the ACGME introduced their standards for the evolution of the Outcome Project to the Next Accreditation System (NAS). Each specialty developed their own outcomes-based milestones within the 6 clinical competency domains. Residents are graded on a scale from 1-5 in each domain; level 4 represents the “graduation target.” Level 5 is the equivalent to the performance of a pathologist who has been in practice for several years.

The Milestones should be applied without regard to the trainee’s specific year. But would exceptional trainees then graduate earlier, and those who fall behind, later? Currently, the federal government funds residents based on a specific number of years for a given specialty. Can we apply the Milestones in a standardized manner for each AP/CP subspecialty? And what about a resident who excels in some rotations but doesn’t meet the Milestones in another? Anecdotally, based on a few pilot beta sites, each interpreted the Milestones and conducted their evaluation process, differently…so is there a best way to implement them? Or are there multiple, equally acceptable, ways?

In terms of the resident perspective, the 2013 ASCP Fellowship and Job Market Surveys, indicated that only 16% of residents felt that they were ready to sign out general pathology cases upon graduation and that 95% would 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.

When I started residency, I was evaluated on a scale of 1-5 with 3 being “usually meets expectations,” (a permutation of the A-F scale we’ve all known since elementary school)in the 6 ACGME core competencies: 1) patient care, 2) medical knowledge, 3) practice-based learning and improvement, 4) interpersonal and communication skills, 5) professionalism, and 6) systems based practice. And for my next to final rotation of PGY-1,the same as my first, I was evaluated by my rotation director and performed a self-evaluation with the Milestones. We then met and discussed our respective evaluations. We pretty much agreed in scoring and with respect to those that we disagreed, I usually graded myself harsher.I’m not sure if one method of evaluation was better than the other – what I found most helpful in both processes were always the comments, not the numerical score.

So are the Milestones an improvement in terms of how we evaluate competency of residents for practice? Only time will tell.

You can find the Pathology Milestone Project, published in September 2012 at http://www.acgme-nas.org/assets/pdf/Milestones/PathologyMilestones.pdf.

Let me know how you feel about the Milestones and resident competency in our comments section.

-Betty Chung