You Make the Diagnosis

A 42-year-old male presents with fever and fatigue. A CBC shows the following:

Hgb 14.2 g/dL (normal = 13.5 – 17.5 g/dL)
WBC 18 x 109/L (normal = 4.5 – 11 x 109/L)
Platelet count 320 x 109/L (normal = 150 – 450 x 109/L)

Differential:

  • Neutrophils and precursors: 80%
  • Lymphocytes: 16%
  • Monocytes: 2.5%
  • Eosinophils: 1.4%
  • Basophils: 0.1%

A review of the blood smear shows a slight left shift in the neutrophil series, with occasional metamyelocytes and rare myelocytes present. Several cells similar to the one shown below are noted.

toxic-gran

Which of the following is the most likely diagnosis?

A.  Acute myeloid leukemia
B. Chronic myeloid leukemia
C. Bacterial infection
D. Viral infection
E. Parasitic infection

The answer in this case is C, bacterial infection. The cell shown in the photo is a slightly immature neutrophil showing toxic granulation (heavy, dark azurophilic cytoplasmic granules), a morphologic sign seen most commonly in severe bacterial infections. The elevated neutrophil count with a left shift supports the diagnosis of bacterial infection.

Toxic granulation is thought to be a result of the bone marrow’s response to the need for neutrophils in the peripheral tissues. Promyelocytes are the last dividing stage of the neutrophil series (once a cell reaches the myelocyte stage, it can no longer divide, but only mature). Normally, as promyelocytes divide, their azurophilic granules are dispersed into daughter cells, the end result being a mature neutrophil with few azurophilic granules.

If there is an urgent need for increased numbers of neutrophils, like there is in a severe bacterial infection, promyelocytes may opt to simply mature, rather than divide. As a result, the azurophilic granules are not diluted among daughter cells, but retained in the maturing neutrophil, the end result being a mature neutrophil with many more azurophilic granules than usual.

The normal red cell and platelet count, as well as the lack of a significant number of very immature myeloid cells, rules out the presence of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). In AML, at least 20% of the nucleated cells in the blood or bone marrow must be composed of blast or blast equivalents.

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is often a consideration in patients with an elevated neutrophil count and a left shift. In CML, however, the neutrophil count is usually quite high, and there is a marked left shift, with a particularly large number of myelocytes. In addition, a basophilia is almost always present.

Viral infection often presents with a lymphocytosis, sometimes with reactive changes in the lymphocytes. Finally, some parasitic infections present with an eosinophilia (but not a neutrophilia).

 

Krafts

-Kristine Krafts, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and School of Dentistry and the founder of the educational website Pathology Student.

Educating the Doctors

If you had a chance to spend one day with a group of fourth year medical students who had already been accepted into residency programs, and you had the goal of providing them with the information any beginning doctor needs to know about the laboratory, where would you begin and what would you teach them?

I had this opportunity recently. The director of a medical school boot camp for Fourth-year medical students (MS4) who would start residency in two months approached me, wanting to know if I’d like this opportunity. Of course, I jumped at the chance. The hardest thing was deciding what information to leave out, to essentially focus the short course on the minimum information related to the lab that a doctor should know when they begin their career. I can honestly say that the opportunity was educational for me also – it showed me exactly how little a graduating doctor knows about the lab! Now in its third iteration, we learn and add and subtract as we go.

We do a brief introduction and overview of general lab structure and then start with phlebotomy. Most doctors (and I’m going to exclude everyone who entered medical school after being a medical technologist) have no idea that the tube top color indicates the type of anticoagulant, and for instance that every purple top tube everywhere in the world has EDTA anticoagulant in it.  We also covered basic phlebotomy technique. Then we rotated them in groups through the various sections of the lab, allowing each section to educate the group on the some of the items they considered the most important features of that section. Some of the topics that were covered include:

Client services/accessioning: some tests utilize a whole blood sample (CBC, blood gases), many, many samples require spinning and aliquotting while maintaining sample identity. Hemolyis, lipemia and icterus interfere with tests.

Chemistry: batch vs random access testing, main chemistry analyzer vs manual testing, pre-analytical affects on test results; reference intervals

Hematology: why clotted tubes can’t be used, how white cell differentials are performed (mostly manual in pediatric institutions)

Microbiology: blood culture bottles in the instrument vs plating and identification; how susceptibility testing works; likelihood of a false positive on a positive flu test run in the summer

Blood banking: what a type and crossmatch includes; how various blood products should be transported; uncrossmatched blood availability

Each section is also instructed to encourage questions and interaction with the MS4s as they tick off main points.

This is an educational opportunity I wish I were granted for all MS4s everywhere. Each year we run this program we refine it as we learn what they most need to know, as well as what they don’t know and what we don’t know. It’s a wonderful learning process.

 

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-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

 

 

ASCP Annual and Resident Council Meetings from the Big Guava

I just spent most of this past week at the ASCP Annual Meeting in Tampa. Even though many of us had just met, every night we socialized over food and drinks (and for some, over a hockey game because the arena was just across the street from the convention center). Inevitably, our conversations would touch on our training, boards, fellowships, and the job market…slightly different journeys to similar destinations.

This past January, I served as the resident on the Annual Meeting Steering Committee Education Working Group. At that time, which was freezing in Chicago, I was glad to be in warm Tampa (during Gasparilla, their quasi-Mardi Gras-like pirate festival). Since I worked half a day and flew in late, I had missed the tour of the convention center and USF’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS). But I was there representing the resident voice when we finalized and scheduled all the educational sessions that attendees enjoyed this past week at the Annual Meeting. Since I had also helped with making sure that the marketing was more resident-focused, I was glad to see many residents in attendance. It’s always nice to see the final product of the fruits of one’s labors so attending this past week meant a lot to me.

I usually don’t visit too many posters at conferences because I’m usually presenting a poster. But this time as a member of the AMSC EWG, I served as a poster judge and was able to speak with many of the poster presenters, even international ones from Spain and France! It was surreal to be on the other side and asking questions and thinking thoughts that judges probably once thought of me. Some even came up and asked for feedback after the judging was over and I hope I helped with my comments.

I also was able to be a resident attendee as well. I attended the Thyroid Ultrasound FNA CAMLS and performed ultrasound-guided FNAs of silicone slabs filled with “olives” as nodules. And I found that it’s much harder that I previously realized. But I was able to use my newly learned skill when I performed a breast FNA this week. Most of the talks I attended focused on hematopathology and molecular pathology topics. I also attended Dr. DeMay’s ‘basics of cytology’ session which was jam packed and even asked him to autograph my copy of “baby DeMay” after his talk (gosh, I’m such a groupie) which I had with me since I’m on cytology now. Others took selfies and pictures with the cytopathology rock star.

The Mixology Lab where the poster and oral presentation as well as the 40 under 40 winners were announced was a great hit – good food, free drinks, and a fun time where attending physicians and trainees mingled next to the azure, calm Hillsborough River. And the fun didn’t end there as we closed the conference with a Resident Reception at the sushi bar across the river that was attended trainees, attending physicians, lab professionals, and friends/spouses of attendees. I even saw a Conga line composed of attending physicians, resident council members, and fellow trainees!

After the meeting, I stayed for the ASCP resident council meeting. It always inspires me to see those committed to organized medicine (or any cause) at work. Everyone was passionate, not afraid to speak up, and brought different skills and experiences to the table. ASCP is always looking for new leaders. But I realize that it’s not always easy to find opportunities to become involved with so I’ll try to advertise those I hear about here on this blog. Feel free to email me to pass along your name within the organization. I promise that getting involved with organized medicine is always rewarding and you will develop leadership skills that will help for when you are a pathologist without even realizing it.

Fellow readers, for the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a break and you’ll be hearing from other trainees about their experiences at the Annual Meeting and with ASCP.

 

Chung

-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.

Getting Out of an Intellectual Laziness Slump

I’m currently listening to the Q&A session after a Big Data Analytics talk in the Grand Ballroom here at the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC) Annual Meeting at the McCormick Place in Chicago. As a medical resident with an MPH and health economic and statistics training and someone who helped perform lab error analysis during my PGY1 year that culminated in a poster presentation at this meeting last year, I found this series of talks very interesting. I feel re-inspired. What I mean by this statement is this…I often find myself in intellectual laziness slumps and I need experiences like these to recharge – to find other people with similar interests who want to participate in such discussions and who can also support us through those times when we are uninspired (or lazy, which can depend on point of view).

I’m just over halfway through my residency training. I’m also preparing materials and gathering letters of recommendations to apply to fellowships very soon. I also have peripheral thoughts of needing to start studying for boards, but that’s lower on my list after fellowship applications and publication submissions that I’ve put off writing for far too long. It’s easy during this long journey to become overwhelmed in addition to uninspired or lazy.

During the day, I work hard to approach my residency service tasks because patient care seems more imminently involved. But I need to get back to devoting one day during the weekend on non-service but also important residency-related tasks on my things-to-do checklist because despite how it may seem, I’m also passionate about them as well. What gets me more excited than networking at conferences such as these, is the opportunity to talk with experts about shared interests and possible collaborative projects…or at least the start of a friendship/mentorship where we can help each other move our healthcare system forward.

On another note, at the end of the week, after AACC is over, I will remain in Chicago to serve as the junior (resident) member of the College of American Pathologists (CAP) Council on Education (COE). I’m looking forward to our Friday night meeting dinner where we also have discussions that re-energize me as well in terms of working together to transform our profession for the better. I always feel privileged to be able to “pick the brains” of others who are intimately and actively involved in this endeavor over the casual setting of a delicious meal.

So, are you in an intellectual slump? If you need encouragement, feel free to email me at chungbm@rwjms.rutgers.edu and I hope to pay it forward and help you out of your slump or connect (I’ve always been a consummate “connector”…a quality from my grassroots organizing days, I suppose) you with mentors who might inspire you. If you are going to be in Chicago in early September, I also recommend that you attend the CAP Residents Forum on September 9, 2014 – you can register at www.thepathologistsmeeting.org or better yet, contact Jan Glas, head of resident engagement for CAP, at jglas@cap.org  to become your program’s delegate and/or volunteer to serve on the credentialing committee and sign in delegates who attend the RF in September.

 

Chung

-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.

 

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Residency

If you are old as I am (I was a non-traditional medical student), then you might remember a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten that remained on the NYT Bestseller List for an impressive two years back in the 80s. It was full of aphorisms of how a simpler perspective might prove to be a better and/or happier way to live. So, I’ve been wondering all week while frantically trying to get my USCAP poster done before the rush fee deadline goes into effect (I guess I never learn)…do we really learn everything we need to know to be good pathologists during residency?

Training programs are variable – some make you work for it while others, not so much. But in the end, the day after graduation, we are all expected to be full-fledged competent pathologists…as if, in those magical 24 hours, we have all become smarter, have mastered our inefficiencies and time management issues, and are suddenly better than we were a short time before.  But honestly, since you probably spent that last day not in pathology mode, the only thing that we can be sure of is that you are 24 hours older. Despite the differences in our training, the majority of us will go on to pass our boards, and scary thought, practice the day after we graduate (although that might mean postponement until after fellowship).

Residents are also variable in terms of how and what they learn. I admit that I never expect to be the best at surgpath, especially grossing. But I do keep trying and hope that I don’t hurt patients in the process. I hope to at least survive until I’m done with surgpath for good. And I know regardless, it will still help me whether I decide to go into molecular pathology or hematopathology or a combination of both. I do know that I excel on my most of my CP rotations. But what do we need to do to learn and improve on our deficiencies and move past our comfort zones? For me, I’m comfortable in the lab since I went to graduate school, originally was a dual degree medical student, and had a decade of research experience prior to medical school but I’d love to hear advice and stories of how residents improved their grossing skills and surgpath differentials or finally triumphed over that weakness or deficiency that kept showing up on your evaluations.

Despite where we train (even at the best programs), I’ll bet that most of us in our initial years will need to know the following, but not in any particular order:

  1. When in doubt or you don’t know, ask for help from someone you trust and respect
  2. The printed word…whether journals, textbooks, or Google…is your friend, so use it, and use it often
  3. Sticky notes or checklists really do help keep us organized
  4. There is never enough time in the day so plan and use it wisely
  5. Getting angry (at ourselves or others) really won’t help so re-direct that energy towards something positive
  6. You are never too old to learn something new
  7. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying until you do (hopefully)
  8. Learning doesn’t stop with graduation
  9. Make time for yourself to recharge your batteries
  10. Despite everything we do, we will make mistakes, but try to learn from them so we don’t repeat them.

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

Use of Remembrances, Part Deux

So, I’d like to continue with the thread of thinking on my previous blog post about the use of remembrances–and thank you to those who have either commented on the blog or emailed me. I personally believe that using old questions that I know are questions that will more than likely be recycled on a standardized exam (which is how I define remembrances), is not for me. However, I don’t believe that using other study materials that may give you an idea of topics or styles of questions that may be asked is the same–after all, there is a whole industry devoted to the topic of study materials for specific tests. For me, it’s about the intention more so than the action because I don’t see life in terms of “black and white”. But I understand that it is often difficult to distinguish between these two and that lines may get blurred unintentionally. But writing down the questions after taking a test and using them or passing them down to one’s juniors to use to study for an upcoming version of the test is using a remembrance in my book.

To me, to cheat or not to cheat, that’s a personal choice and I don’t really judge (or honestly, feel it’s worth my effort to do so) and I think we can say we all have different definitions. But for me, the more important question is whether I choose to cheat myself. Multiple times during my medical training, I’ve felt like I’ve had to play catch-up. I think that this is because I didn’t truly take the time and effort when I should’ve to learn the material in a way that I could internalize it enough to stick–and often that may be because I was too stressed to see the “forest through the trees.” But, now I’ve begun to see the outlines of the forest.

Being more of a scientist-trained person and less of a clinical one, I still find myself having to go back and relearn a concept I should’ve learned well during medical school to carry out my resident responsibilities. And while I may internally curse myself for this, I understand that I need to do this–that I may hurt a patient if I just brush under the rug that I’m missing some knowledge, no matter how small a crumb it may be. I might be able to get by without fully understanding it, but I need to participate in their care. First, we need to be self-aware enough to even question ourselves. I believe that starts with at least making the decision to make an effort to ask these questions, which we can all do. And much of that comes from experience. But it also comes from listening to the consistent patterns that percolate throughout the feedback we have been given over time from our mentors and from identifying what characteristics we want to live up to in our role models.

I also believe that this effort should not be one-sided in that all the responsibility is on the trainee. Factors in this equation equally include our residency programs, and specifically, those who serve as our role models and mentors. Even if our attendings may not realize it, they do serve these two roles just as much as they fill the role of being our didactic teachers in their topic area. Also important is the critical thinking or analytical process that we need to learn and make our own. I’ve found that the best teachers, or at least the ones I relate to most, are the ones who lead me through the thinking process–to look first at low power at the architecture and then to move on to high power where I consider the nuclear and cytoplasmic features, chromatin texture, the company that the primary lesional cells keep, and so on, to put together the pieces of the puzzle to come to a reasonable diagnosis and differential. Same process, albeit with different pieces, when it comes to my CP rotations. And I’m slowly but surely attempting to get there.

I also believe that the American Board of Pathology (ABP) who writes our board exams, and even the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) who writes our resident in-service exam (RISE), have an equal responsibility to help us transform our culture. Pathology and diagnostics are changing at a rapid pace and both organizations need to be up-to-date and reflect this in how they construct our exams. We are (or are training to be) the diagnostics experts and we need to know not only certain facts but also understand the relevant concepts—and truly understand the importance of training ourselves to be life-long learners. If both organizations want to absolve themselves from culpability in maintaining a culture that silently endorses the use of remembrances, must not recycle old questions. Of course, this does not mean writing exams from scratch each and every year. And of course, I am not trying to belittle the efforts that these organizations do make every year on our behalf when they write these exams. I am only entreating them to make honest, focused, and deliberate efforts each year to re-examine the content of these exams and to retire those that may fall under the definition of a remembrance. We need to have these exams truly reflect the knowledge and critical thinking we need as a practicing pathologist—more case based multiple-step questions rather multiple-choice (which I’ve always called “multiple-guess”) might help.

So, fellow residents, figure out how you learn best–and in a nice and respectful way, convey your expectations to your teachers–ask questions, read more books and journal articles, step up and take more responsibility in your rotations for patient care and safety issues and don’t just do the minimum amount of work required.If you are so inclined, get more involved. Next week, I’ll talk about resident engagement in pathology organizations and my recent experience serving as the resident representative on ASCP’s Annual Meeting Steering Committee Education Working Group. I encourage all residents to at least take advantage of the FREE resident memberships from both ASCP and CAP (you get discounts on books, apply to serve on committees, etc).

And also, turn in abstracts to present at their annual meetings, both have their submission period open NOW!

CAP in Chicago, IL Sept 7-10, 2014

ASCP in Tampa. FL during Oct 8-11, 2014

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

What Are Better Ways to Learn and Retain New Pathology Concepts?

So, I’m curious…how are pathology concepts taught in your program and are these methods effective? We use multiple modalities in my program. We have mandatory core curriculum didactics three mornings each week, 2 days of AP and 1 day of CP. Additionally, we also have either cytology (lecture or multi-headed session) or hematopathology interdisciplinary conference on alternating Fridays. On some Tuesdays, we have invited guest lecturers for grand rounds. During PGY-1 while on our “intro to SP” rotations, we had additional histology, gross organ, and subspecialty didactics.

And even though, we have 4 sites, those who cannot be at the main site for lecture, teleconference in to the core lectures. So, our mornings are pretty full and it almost feels like we’re still in medical school during our clinical years with needing to balance service work with didactics. This year, they’ve tried to make the curriculum more interactive with more pre-assigned virtual slides or reading, occasional pre- and post-didactic quizzes, and a case-based rather than lecture-based structure.

And this is before all the tumor boards, morbidity and mortality, interdisciplinary specialty conferences, journal club, conferences, and CP call conferences that we make presentations that require prior research. So, sometimes, I’m amazed that in the midst of all this, that we can fit in all our service duties. We also make consistent use of our slide scanner – to create virtual re-cut sets for study, prepare presentations, and put together educational modules (at least our attendings do for this last one). And I didn’t realize until I met other residents at conferences, that heavy use of virtual slides isn’t the norm everywhere so I feel fortunate. And of course, there is sign-out (and sometimes, grossing) with the attending and learning from our fellows.

So in terms of the aforementioned, I expect that many programs teach utilizing a similar mix of modalities. But how do you learn on your own personal time? I’ve never been a student who would win an award for lecture attendance but since our “core” is mandatory, I attend most despite the fact that I don’t learn best in this way. I’m not a big textbook reader either – I have a decent number of books but can’t say I’ve finished any entirely. Having been graduate school trained initially, I’m much more of a journal article reader, which for me, as a CP-inclined resident, works well when I’m on CP rotations where I tend to excel more than I do on AP.

But what is the best way to learn on AP rotations? As an artist, I like pictures and there are some good websites (and even textbooks out there). But most days, I come home too tired to retain anything even if I could read more than for the pre-assignment for our “core”. I have to admit…I have not figured out that secret yet and would love to hear your thoughts. How best do we learn and retain pathology concepts?

-Betty Chung