Virtually Amazing

Hello everyone and welcome back!

I’ve appreciated some amazing feedback from my previous post discussing how doctors can sometimes be patients too, and the challenges one might face in different roles within our health care system. Not only a challenge of roles, but those that struggle with invisible illness have unique perspectives on patient care.

That said, this month let me take a break from all the fun content found between cases, concepts, and trends in pathology and laboratory medicine, and celebrate our amazingly successful (and virtual) Annual ASCP Meeting!

Image 1. Just look at this virtual lobby! Set aside that in-person connectivity dissapointment and just appreciate the quality put into this visually! More of my oggling to come in further images…

It was awesome. But don’t just take my word for it, we’re all people of science here, right? So let’s do it by the numbers!

  • 133 educational sessions
  • 3 general sessions
  • 4 named lectures
  • 36 round table sessions which included topics like wellness, problem-solving, collaborative solutions, and “birds of a feather” breakout discussions
  • 9 virtual video microscopy sessions
  • 8 session dedicated to laboratory professionals covering hematology, chemistry, microbiology, and blood banking
  • 6 resident board review sessions
  • 15 companion society sessions
  • 14 sessions related to wellness
  • 4 sessions discussing diversity and inclusion
  • 10 COVID-focused sessions
  • 20 grant funded sessions
  • 4 virtual patient symposia (more on this topic below…) and
  • And 300+ posters!
Image 2. More visual appreciation here: virtual sessions felt like you were really in a large, collective meeting of enthusiastic, like-minded laboratory professionals all learning, collaborating, and networking together!
Image 3. I was fortunate enough to to speak on this amazing panel regarding direct patient-and-pathologist interactions, making laboratory medicine and the overal healthcare experience, safer, more accessible, more interdisciplinary, and better equiped at dealing with the forefront of medical diagnostics!
Image 4. So, the session went well! Just look at that social media data: 36 million impressions over 3.5 days! That’s 1 million people engaging ASCP topics a day, or 12 people per second! All actively discussing and collaborating topics in pathology and laboratory medicine.
Image 5. How could I (of all people) ignore the fact that #ASCP2020 featured an amazing social (media) lounge where people from all over could connect, chat, network, and relax! There were interactive, virtual sessions covering all kinds of non-lab med stuff: yoga, meditation, mixology, and cooking! I hope this is a permanent addition to future (hopefully) hybrid in-person/virtual meetings.

What more could you ask for? The folks that run the logistics and planning for the ASCP Annual Meeting outdid themselves again. Sure this content would excite anyone in the field for 3 dedicated days of immersive learning and networking, but all this and more are still available online for virtual on-demand recorded viewing! Missed a session? No worries, it’s still waiting for you for about 6 months (through March of 2021). All the buzz aside from ASCP members having free access to all of this content, the excitement started months before the meeting went live. Estimates are still coming in, but membership grew by a couple hundred in the weeks leading up to the meeting—not surprising: free access for members? That was an excellent deal, so choice.

Image 6. The start of the #ASCPSoMeTeam’s amazing trajectory culminated at #ASCP2019 in Arizona, the more we work together the more we can accomplish for our profession and our patients, #StrongerTogether.
Image 7. ASCP’s Resident & Pathologist Councils are invaluable assets to promoting and advancing all of our professional development. #ASCP2020 was no different! From virtual fellowship fairs to online, interactive resident council sessions, there was a lot to take it—still available online!
Image 8. I’ve talked about previous ASCP Annual Meetings here and here, and while I can’t list every single aspect of what made this meeting (virtually) amazing, members can check in for about 6 months and see for themselves the quality and attention to detail that comes directly from our collective passion to make pathology and laboratory medicine better, for everyone. Kudos to the ASCP leadership and logistics teams that made this all possible!

Great to see you all at the meeting!

Thanks for reading! See you next time!


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.

Safety Checklists and High Reliability in the Lab

A High Reliability Organization (HRO) is one that works with complex and hazardous systems every day and yet retains a high level of safety and an error free environment. The first recognized HRO industries were the United States Navy nuclear aircraft carriers , the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control systems, and nuclear power plant operations. These industries operate using highly complicated and dangerous processes, yet they have the fewest safety incidents.

The use of checklists is an important part of keeping safety incidents to a minimum. They can help employees avoid safety issues, avert disasters, and even aid in incident response. In aviation, a pre-flight safety checklist is a list of tasks that must be performed by pilots and crew before a take-off. Pilots also use checklists for both normal and non-normal operations, for landings, take-offs, and also for malfunctions, and emergencies. Checklists are usually printed on a card, and one card may be divided into as many as a dozen of separate checklists, each of which will be read aloud depending on the phase of a flight. Nuclear power plant operations also involve the use of many safety checklists.

A functional safety checklist features specific characteristics that aid the user in avoiding safety mishaps. Checklists should have defined pause points so users can determine when the list should be used and when new tasks should begin. Checklists types are also important, and the style used may vary depending on the task and the experience of the user. For example, a “do-confirm” list is generally used when users are experienced with the process and have gone through the necessary steps on the list and simply run through it to ensure the process is complete. A “read-do” checklist means employees perform the tasks as they read through each list item.

Most checklists should not be lengthy as it may tempt experienced users to take shortcuts or to ‘pencil-whip’ responses. Make sure the list includes crucial and potentially overlooked steps. These may be the things that can cause the greatest harm if not checked. Use language that is simple, precise, and use terminology that is familiar to the lab staff using the list. Lastly. Test the checklist to see that it fits the criteria above, and that it accomplishes the task set for it. The real goal of using a safety checklist is to create a cultural change by enhancing teamwork, increasing safety communication and changing the understanding of responsibility for safety within the department.

There are quite a few published lab safety checklists available for use. Here are just a few:

  • CLSI’s Clinical Laboratory Safety (GP-17) – Lab Safety Checklist (Appendix C)
  • World Health Organization Biosafety Manual (2004)– Ch. 22 Safety Checklist
  • ISO 15190 Medical laboratories: Requirements for Safety (2019) – Annex B
  • EPA website: Waste Generator Inspection Checklists

Your lab may have its own specific needs, and these checklists may not cover them, or they may be too much for your current issues. If that is the case, create a checklist that focuses on an issue or issues you’d like changed. For example, if PPE compliance is on the rise, create a list that can be used daily or weekly. Walk around and look for proper footwear, lab coat use, and face protection for example. Home made checklists can be scored and used as a quality monitor in order to show improvement in lab safety over time. Make sure people are trained to use the checklists properly, and that people are consistent in how they answer individual items. It’s always a good idea to alter who uses the safety checklists as well. Make sure everyone can use them, and that will create a broader understanding of the safety needs of the department. That can go a long way toward improving the overall safety culture. A review of checklists is always key. If there is a problem with a response for a particular item, it should never be ignored. In fact, it should be addressed quickly.

Many labs today do not fall into the category of a High Reliability Organization. Complex and dangerous tasks do occur in the field, but safety incidents are not uncommon. It may be because lab employees are not educated enough about the consequences. There are definite hazards when working in the lab setting, but often they are not in the forefront of the lab techs’ minds, safety is not made a priority. It needs to be discussed more. Or maybe the reason is that many of the hazards in the lab do not always have more immediate consequences. Organisms involved with exposures have incubation periods, and disease states (like cancer) can take years to develop after a safety incident.

In the airline and nuclear industries, if a safety error is made, the consequence is usually immediate, and deadly for many. Is that it? Is that why people don’t have the same reaction to safety issues in the lab? What can we do as safety professionals to change that? I believe we can change it- and it will take checklists, training and safety awareness.

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.

Floating in a Sea of Uncertainty: Finding a Lifeboat

As we all find ourselves 9 months into 2020, which is arguably the worst year in living memory for many people, we face daily ongoing challenges of completing our work, finding work, adapting our work, feeding our children, schooling our children, preserving our health, caring for loved ones, and trying to not let the daily stress piped in from every communication channel send us over the edge. There are many people who have had a stellar year and have become richer beyond anyone’s imagining as the multitude of crises have fed their business models. There are many people we have lost prematurely due to an uncontrolled viral plague who would have contributed so much had they lived. Amidst all of this, there are individuals dealing with everyday problems in the chaotic setting of 2020—cancer, mental illness, disability, disparities, financial burdens, etc. Personally, I have a dear friend who was on the brink of a complete mental breakdown in 2019 for who I now feel I am on suicide watch 24/7. Life is normally hard, but it has certainly been abnormally hard for the past 9 months. I do not wish to point fingers, place blame, use hindsight, or make astute observations that are of no value—what my sports colleagues call the Monday quarterback effect. What I do want to do is open up to anyone reading this with a few of the things I have done in the last 9 months that have provided comfort and reminded me that, “This too shall pass.”

Take a stroll down memory lane – When I was younger, I used to take a lot of photographs with an actual camera and film. I would probably pass out if I knew exactly how much money I have spent in my life on buying and developing film. My dad was also an amazing photographer and probably knew more about taking traditional photographs than I know about infectious disease. During a certain period (end of high school through the beginning of residency – about 10 years), I was always taking photos and had at least three cameras all the time: a polaroid, an SLR, and point-and-shoot. I was not a very good photographer overall and most people quickly got annoyed with my constant snapping. But I am a collector so every photo I took was placed in an album. In organizing my garage on a Saturday recently when I was looking for anything to do because there was nothing really to do socially outside of my home, I made the decision to reorganize all of my photos into boxes by year and/or event and get rid of the photo albums. I do not recommend that unless you have a lot of time on your hands. But what I do recommend, and I greatly enjoyed, was going through EVERY photograph in my collection. There is a small box from when I was young that were taken by others as well as high school. There is a small box from college. There are literally 12 boxes from medical school and 6 boxes of my family. What did that mean in reality? I was incredibly happy in medical school. I remember being unhappy in high school and college. I have only a handful of friends each from high school, college, and medical school that I am in contact with regularly so no bias in that regard. But I wanted to remember medical school to a much greater degree than I had college or high school. My family is similar as I love my family. Seeing pictures of my grand parents who have all passed and my little cousins before they became grandparents made me feel happy and nostalgic. You have got photos somewhere (and I don’t mean the loads of ridiculous selfies on your Facebook account). Go dig them out and flip through them. If you find some true gems, post them on your social media. Share your memories and you will naturally smile.

Learn something new – We are inundated with information constantly but most of it is not knowledge. Most of it is simply status—the current state of people around us, all of whom will be dead and dust one day. One of my favorite lines from “The Terminator” is, “Look at it this way… In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” All the tweets, all the posts, all the photos are fleeting moments of fluff (and probably rot your brain—scientific studies to be complete). But knowledge is forever and is precious. Do you know how to refinish an old piece of furniture? Do you know how to grow any type of plant from a cutting? When is the next time we will see Saturn chasing Jupiter across the sky? What happens to stuff you put in a recycling bin? Where does the electricity you use in your home come from? Can you name all 80 unique cultures in Ethiopia? The internet is full of a lot of garbage, but it is also full of incredible sources of knowledge. Sometimes (most of the time) we are so tired of looking at a computer or a smartphone or a tablet if we are working remotely that the last thing we want to do is engage with it further. Libraries are open so you can always resort to dusty old books which are also full of knowledge. Online classes are available for many things. Although cliché, TED talks can be cool. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the negativity, opinions, and bandwidth that’s given to things no one will care about in 100 years, turn your attention towards something pure and lose yourself in the nonpolitical world of knowledge. An expert is someone who knows everything that is true about a subject as well as everything that is false. Pick a topic, preferably something that does not come up in your work and set a goal to become an expert in that topic. There will always be people who know more than you do on any topic—but not every topic—but the point is to gain knowledge, grow your brain, and appreciate the permanence of truth.

Mindfulness, it’s really NOT a fad – I wouldn’t dare try to completely address the topic of mindfulness in a short blog, but I will challenge you to investigate it for yourself. Where my last suggestion is one to fill your brain with new ideas, information, processes, and thoughts so you master something external to yourself, mindfulness is the exact opposite. Learning to “turn your brain off” is an amazing skill that does take practice but has enormous benefits. And it is not really turning your brain off but rather turning down the volume on all the negative thoughts you have and may not even know it. Negative thoughts—internal or external—do not control you! They are your thoughts and the most powerful thing you can do is control them. There are many books on this subject, but my favorite is, “Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”. I will not lie to you. I read this book 5 years ago and have been practicing the techniques since then which did give me a leg up on the horror hurricane that is 2020. But it is never too late to reach inside yourself and find inner strength to deal with outer challenges. It is a bargain at less than $15 and will give you some amazing tools to use if you give it a chance. On a side note, if you are dealing with mental illness or you have a loved one who is dealing with mental illness, the most important first step is recognition, acceptance, and treatment. No one can be expected to defeat the external demons of the world when your internal demons have the chemical advantage. Recognize the signs and recognize the external amplifiers so you can be the hero for those who need you most during this time.

You’ve got to have friends – I remember in the not too distant past listening to “old people” say, “These darn kids need to stop playing video games and texting friends in the same room and get outside and play.” True? Yes. But now our reality has shifted to digital communications as the safest way to go to work, go to school, and see our friends. Zoom parties and the like have become extremely popular and I wrote about etiquette for these tools previously. But they are not the only way to communicate. Did you know that your smartphone is a phone? You can call and talk to people! All that paper junk mail that shows up in your snail mailbox is bidirectional. You can send people letters! This is all obvious and the vast majority if not all of you reading this have used some form of communication to talk to non-work people at least once in the last 24 hours. But do not take this for granted. There were people before our virally induced confinement that did not have large social networks or even limited ones. The isolation of our current situation is amplifying their loneliness. What am I asking you to do? You have a phone. You have social media. Dig through your contacts, find someone you have not talked to in a while, and reach out. Check on them. Check on your distant family members. Ask about them, how they are doing, and what is new in their life. Hearing their voice and laughing with them will make you smile on the inside and the outside.

Move – Your body. Daily.

milner-small


-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

False Negatives in COVID-19 Testing

I left for vacation at the beginning of June thinking “once I get back, all of this COVID stuff will be quieted down.” …Well that wasn’t quite the case and testing for novel Coronavirus has continued to be very important. In fact, this last weekend I was tested by occupational health. It came back negative, but I’m am very enthusiastic to get alternative specimen types validated; those Nasopharyngeal swabs are quite…uncomfortable. Luckily, my test was processed at our institution which gets results back in 24-48 hours. However, with the resurgence around the country, turnaround times are backing up to 7-8 days. One solution has been the widely used IDNOW point of care platform. However, there has been significant concern over false negatives produced by this platform. One reason the sensitivity is different is because this platform performs isothermal amplification of nucleic acid. This method amplifies RNA at a stable temperature instead of cycling the temperature as in real-time PCR.

Colleagues at my institution reflexed any negative IDNOW samples to the m2000 Real-Time PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 for one month. Within that time, over 500 samples were tested and the IDNOW was found to have missed 21% of positive cases (prevalence rate of 5%)2. One the positive side, it had a 98% negative predictive value, which helped rule out COVID19 infection. However, as prevalence rates are increasing, a high negative predictive value isn’t as important as sensitivity.

One study drew much attention when it claimed the IDNOW had a sensitivity of 52% in a New York City academic institution (Basu)4. However, this seems to be an outlier compared to other studies of this platform: one large multi-center study found positive percent agreement (equivalent of sensitivity when a gold standard test hasn’t been established) of 74%1. The highest PPA of 88%3 for the IDNOW was found in a study that indicated it can be completed in 17 minutes, whereas another quick instrument (but not point of care instrument: Xpert Xpress, 45min) had a PPA of 98%2.

Myself and other colleagues looked more closely at the clinical characteristics of false negative test results on the IDNOW. Overall, we found 82% PPA, and 8 patients with false negative tests. Interestingly, a majority of these patients were tested over 2 weeks after their initial onset of symptoms. The virus is known to be at its highest levels at the beginning of symptom onset. So the test may not be limited, but it should be used in the correct clinical context (< 2weeks from symptom onset). After that time, other RT-PCR based tests are more appropriate.

As clinical laboratorians, we often hear: “the right test for the right patient at the right time.” Now with so many platforms available for use in different contexts, we should help guide clinicians to Choose Wisely.

References

  1. Harrington A et al. Comparison of Abbott ID Now and Abbott m2000 methods for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 from nasopharyngeal and nasal swabs from symptomatic patients. JCM 2020. PMID: PMID: 32327448
  2. McDonald et al. Diagnostic Performance of a Rapid Point of Care Test for SARS-CoV-2 in an Urban ED Setting. Academ. Emerg. Med. 2020. PMID: 32492760
  3. Zhen W et al. Clinical Evaluation of Three Sample-To-Answer Platforms for the Detection of SARS-CoV-2. JCM 2020. PMID: 32332061
  4. Basu A et al. Performance of the rapid Nucleic Acid Amplification by Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 in nasopharyngeal swabs transported in viral media and dry nasal swabs, in a New York City academic institution. BioRxiv 2020.

-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Chief Resident of Pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. His clinical research interests include understanding how the lab intersects with transgender healthcare and improving genetic variant interpretation.

The Laboratory’s Role in Inclusion

“Where do we go from here…chaos or community?” is the question Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in 1967 before the civil rights riots in the hot summer of 1968.  The query was directed to the nation as it sought to address the racism and pain deeply felt in the daily lives of its African-American citizens.  Over 50 years later, that very same question is asked again as the nation is roiled with civil demonstrations, daily videos of racist behavior, and the seemingly senseless killings of African-American men and women. 

As American culture and the nation evolves, uncomfortable conversations are beginning to occur in healthcare and across the country.  Laboratory administrators and managers may want to reflect on the culture of their laboratory to ensure all voices are heard and that they are creating and supporting an inclusive work environment.

Diversity, inclusivity, and equity are goals healthcare organizations seek to incorporate into their culture to foster a healthy workplace environment and be reflective of the communities they serve.  As with most industries, the laboratory has found itself challenged to improve cross-cultural intelligence and eliminate implicit and unconscious bias.  The scientific community would like to believe it operates and makes decisions based solely on objectivity and facts.  However, everyone is human and prone to perceptions influenced by preconceived beliefs and life experiences. 

In the laboratory, questions involving race relations are pondered and discussed by workers of all creeds and colors.  Historically, laboratorians have viewed themselves as scientists focused strictly on the pursuit of facts, hard data, and helping patients.  However, one would err in thinking the lives of minority lab workers were encased in impenetrable bubbles of logic and reason. Instead, early on in their career (correction—their lives), many minority workers learned to compartmentalize and hide feelings of unfairness and helplessness in their effort to “fit in” and not make others feel uncomfortable.

Laboratory administrators should let employees know that their office is a “safe place” if an employee feels he or she needs to discuss issues affecting how they feel about their work environment. Many employees of color working in predominately white environments may avoid conversations involving race out of fear as being labeled as “one of those.”  However, avoiding difficult conversations does not make the problems go away; in fact, the lack of addressing an issue often creates a more significant problem later on, or the employee simply quits.  One thing managers should be prepared to hear if they are successful in creating a safe space and the employee chooses to talk, harsh truths.

Lab managers can be proactive and ask if the employee has encountered any barriers or obstacles to their success in the healthcare organization.  Minority employees frequently experience microaggressions, favoritism, and racial discrimination.  Discussing feelings may provide a release for the employee, allow the manager to begin to understand, and offer the opportunity for the manager to reflect on their behavior. 

 The diversity of today’s protest marchers provides evidence of the progress America has made toward vanquishing the problems of racism and discrimination.  All colors, creeds, and ethnicities are together expressing their desire to defeat the scourge of racial injustice.  Laboratories are a part of the social community, and minority employees are often reluctant to share anxiety and experiences they feel are race-based.  Lab managers should be reflective and reach out to their employees to let them know their office is a “safe place” to discuss issues openly, including those with racial overtones.  It is only through open and honest dialogue that we can avoid chaos and become the community we seek.

Darryl Elzie, PsyD, MHA, MT(ASCP), CQA(ASQ), has been an ASCP Medical Technologist for over 30 years and has been performing CAP inspections for 15+ years. Dr. Elzie provides laboratory quality oversight for four hospitals, one ambulatory care center, and supports laboratory quality initiatives throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.

From Panic to Pandemic: Laboratory Emergency Response Plans

In 2018, Hurricane Florence ripped through the Carolinas causing an immense amount of destruction and taking a record amount of lives in the area. Superstorm Sandy had a devastating impact on New York and New Jersey in October 2012. In Joplin, Missouri, an EF-5 tornado cut a damaging path through town in May 2011, directly hitting the hospital. Severe storms, flooding, and even blizzards are regular events throughout large areas of the United States every year, disrupting normal life and the delivery of services, including healthcare services.

Natural disasters occur frequently, and labs must consider them in their Emergency Response plans. These disasters have consequences for hospitals and laboratories and their operations. Given the wide variety of possible disasters that can affect a laboratory, it may seem impossible to be prepared for every type of event that could occur. Some labs take a reactive approach and create individual plans for different disaster types. For example, a lab manager may decide to create a blizzard response plan after a major winter storm—a plan that is separate from any previously existing lab emergency response plan. That may not work well, and it many plans may become cumbersome for lab staff when the event occurs.

As 2020 has shown us, other types of disasters that are not normally considered can also affect laboratory operations. The COVID-19 pandemic situation has created issues like the reduction of the availability of staff, a need to quickly alter testing platforms, and even major supply acquisition issues. Clearly, pandemic issues need to be considered when looking at lab disaster responses.

The best type of laboratory emergency response plan is a single plan that will enable the laboratory to continue to provide services in a variety of disaster scenarios, including pandemics. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) requires labs to develop an emergency plan which is based on the overall facility’s Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). The HVA is a risk assessment tool that lists types of disasters that can affect the facility, and it ranks which disaster types are most likely. If you work in an independent lab, you must perform your own HVA and update it every year. In 2020, it would be prudent to quickly add “pandemic” to the list.

There is no need to panic, however. In your plan which has been designed to have an “all hazards” approach, you may find some aspects of pandemic response are already addressed. Fluctuating staffing levels should already be addressed. Be sure the plan discusses how to best utilize staff when fewer people are available. That process may include a reduction in testing or utilizing a reference lab if necessary. In some instances during the pandemic, labs were left with too many staff members once an overall reduction in lab volumes occurred. How can extra staff be used? Can they go to other departments or facilities where needs may exist? There should be a section in the response plan regarding how to handle supply issues. If it is known there is going to be a problem obtaining PPE, reagents, and other supplies, decide what procedures will occur. Stockpiling, finding alternative vendors, and changing the type of supplies purchased are some options.

Once all of the pieces of the updated lab emergency operations procedure is complete, it is important to test the plan for flaws or needed improvements. One thorough method of testing includes the use of a table-top drill or exercise. Present a step-wise disaster scenario to key lab stakeholders and discuss possible responses as the imagined situation unfolds. Be sure to discuss important aspects such as staffing, supplies, communications, and relocation of testing. If the COVID-19 pandemic has led your lab to utilize its emergency response plan, be sure to take the opportunity to review how it is working for your department. Ask lab leaders and staff members if the current plan works- what went well and what needs improvement? This current disaster can help us all to improve our current procedures and keep us ready for the next event.

Is your laboratory emergency operations plan up to date? Does your staff know how to use it or will they panic when a disaster occurs? Has the plan been tested? Now is the time to review what you have and make sure it works for pandemics as well as a wide variety of disaster scenarios.

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.

Practicing Productivity in the time of Pandemic

At this point, you are either somewhat adjusted to working from home (likely taking on new roles and responsibilities while juggling your kids, dog, and spouse), battling COVID on the front lines (caring for patients, providing us with food, or keeping the lights on), or unemployed (yet another victim among a whole host of victims during this extremely trying time). Regardless of where you fall, you have likely been on at least one video conference since January and you will likely be on many more over the next six months. As live, in person meetings of 2500 to 5000 people that we are so used to have come to a screeching halt, the world of associations such as ASCP are carefully and artfully creating virtual experiences that you can be assured will enhance and improve your life but will most definitely be in a virtual format. But the whole world is now experiencing online happy hours, teaching sessions, work meetings, telehealth visits, group therapy sessions, and kid’s birthday parties. Step back from your current situation and ask, “Have I seen MORE or LESS of my friends and peers in the last six months than in the prior year?” That answer is different for each person and carries different emotional baggage. For the constant extrovert who needs that human interaction fuel to spur them on, video conferences may not be hitting the mark. For the ever-quiet introvert who happily recharges among their books and cats and knitting, constantly being required to video chat with people for hours on end may be pushing them toward a steep cliff of insanity. For the “mover and shaker” that loves a problem a minute, thrives in crisis, and gets utter joy out of solving a problem and moving on, facing a day filled with 8 pre-scheduled video conferences or, worse, a day with an empty calendar can be demoralizing. For anyone who had a rhythm to their email usage which involved key time points to check during the day and an internal list of priorities of how to deal with emails on a rolling basis, the extreme uptick in volume of email because everyone is working remotely in the same office (“where is the water cooler chat?”) is dizzying.

It is now July 2020 and we face the uncertainly of what working from home will mean or be or even when it will end (or will we choose this as a permanent solution?). For those of us who have been and continue to report to our work place using social distancing, masks, shift rotations, and the inability to touch anything around us, how can we make this sustainable long-term, do we need to do so, and how do we know when we can end it? For the hundreds of millions of non-laboratorians who are asking, “When will there be a test so we can go back to work?”, the job of the laboratory has long been a mystery but is now suddenly thought to be a miraculous answer to a complex problem of politics, public health, and capitalism. Amidst all of the uncertainty of COVID-19 that we are facing on a continuous basis, the country was already immersed into a “fake news” war between rival political factions that already had the bulk of America either fed up with all new sources, only trusting one “news” source (the bulk of which was political agenda opinion), or simply burying heads in the sand in hopes that this was all just a bad dream. We are halfway through 2020 and the optimists are saying, “It can only get better” and the pessimists are sighing, “what comes next?”. The only people who aren’t complaining are the myriad of investors who didn’t even need a crystal ball to predict the March stock market crash, sold short, and raked in billions—which they then returned to the market buying blue chips at rock bottom (relative) prices to now be showing a 20% return. If only we could all be so lucky?

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the sun will come up tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever and this virus will run its course—whether we fight it tooth and nail or ignore it—to a natural conclusion which is harmony within our population. Over the next 6 months, enormous amounts of data on epidemiology, biology, virology, and treatment will emerge. We will learn from our colleagues in Africa what the impacts of early, sustained interventions can do to thwart the virus. Over the next year, vaccines will appear and be available for the population at large. The myriad of tests will have settled around a handful of reliable “winners” that have the sensitivity and specificity we need for each of the valued applications in our systems. The stock markets (and your retirement funds) will have recovered and exceeded pre-COVID-19 levels. However, one aspect of our lives will be permanently changed and that is our dependence and use of video conferencing for the special, the everyday, and the mundane. To that end, let me conclude with some of my (hard earned) lessons from both the last 6 months and the last 20 years of working in global health.

  1. Video conferencing etiquette is a “thing”. Seriously. Tools available to the host can get you so far but nothing says, “we are all in this together” like a team on a video call that is following the rules. Mute yourself when you are not talking. Turn off your computer’s sounds or software that makes frequent sounds. Do not leave your cellphone on your desk on vibrate (computers have great microphones!). If your internet connection is bad, switch off your video. When you are listening, look directly into your webcam (then others feel you are looking directly at them and they feel more connected). Use a virtual background if possible so we do not see your kids making breakfast in the background. Brush your hair (you can totally get away with no pants and not showering but “bed head” is a dead giveaway). Sit within 3 feet of your computer. Rename yourself on the screen if possible, with your full name and organization. Do not take a video call while walking outside.
  2. Your workstation is your productivity cockpit. Make sure it has what you need. In today’s world of multitasking and conferencing, two screens are almost a must. You can use a laptop while traveling but for a home office, having two screens creates a much cleaner canvas to spread out your work, keep resources at your fingertips, take notes while conferencing, etc. Treat your digital workspace like your physical desktop. Keep only what you need on the desktop. File your files in folders you understand and can follow. If your virtual desktop is covered in hundreds of files and icons, your brain is not mentally able to process or prioritize. Use a background picture that sends you to your happy place so that, when you need a break, all windows can be closed, and you can zip to your happy place immediately.
  3. Develop a personal system for communications. Maybe you are a texter, a snapchatter, an emailer, a phone-call-aholic, an instant messenger fiend… Whatever you are comfortable with, the other dozen people you interact with are comfortable with something else. Your team lead may say, “We are using Teams!” or “We are using Basecamp!” or “We are using Sharepoint!” but, let’s face it, it may not fit your style or your work flow. The important thing is to develop a system for whatever communication type you feel most comfortable and work that system to be productive. I have seen the inboxes of people who have 85,000 unopened emails (both personally and professionally) to which I reply, “Delete them!”. If something in those emails was so important, the person will have found another way to contact you. You are never going to read them and, honestly, email just does not work for you. Pick another channel. Texting can work for many people but the organization of texts on a phone and the archiving eventually becomes a challenge such that screen captures or lots of copy/pastes must occur. Whatsapp is a good solution with its archiving function but can still present a permanence problem. Your chosen communication channel is important because it will dictate your productivity style. For example, one of my colleagues takes extensive notes on paper (extensive!) but sometimes takes extensive notes on a tablet. Their work stack (i.e., the collection of items they work through daily) is a combination of pieces of paper and digital notes, but it is disconnected from a communication system. The time required for note translation into understanding and then moving those thoughts to an email, for example, for me would be wasted time. But they remain one of the most productive people I know so this system works for them! Each person must decide what makes them most productive and what keeps them informed and connected; however, a good approach if you are feeling overwhelmed is to use a single system (digital) that moves with you. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail (and calendar), and iCloud all have cross functionality that allow seamless notetaking, email and calendar creation, and file connectivity. Outlooks category function for email can be a massive time saver for the adept user where a preliminary read through of email can allow for classification (for example, I use “Urgent”, “To do – Non-Urgent”, and “Waiting on Reply”) and then priority follow up. At the writing of this blog, I have less than 30 emails in my inbox, all are categorized, and all are calendared for completion.
  4. Go outside and breath. The single most important thing that we can achieve as a society as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is an appreciation for life, freedom, and health and that is difficult to do if you stay in front of your computer for 12 hours a day. More than half a million people have died of COVID-19 and we could have been one of them. Unemployment spike from a flat 4% to more than 14% with many companies, restaurants, and small businesses never planning to reopen. The unfortunate tragedies that continue to befall our black brothers and sisters led to peaceful protests which were then corrupted by riot and ruin across many major cities. Even now, racial and ethnic disparities, especially our Navajo neighbors in the Southwest along with our black communities, cause disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. It is not a time to think, “I’ve been lucky!”. It is a time to say, “What can I do to help today?”And where the help is needed is outside, in your community. Yes, you should wear a mask if you can’t social distance. Be sure to wash your hands frequently. But get out there and be part of the change for the better!
milner-small

-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

A Wave of Testing Advances or Just a Drop in the Bucket?

Hello again everyone and welcome back! Thanks for joining last time in my discussion of social media as an inexhaustible force in professional development. This month…something different…

Yes, indeed, this month’s piece from me to you is a well-deserved break from your regularly scheduled pandemic reading. Consider this your COVID content caesura. Whatever will we discuss without the virus at the forefront of all of our media channels? What then could possibly hold our attention, satisfy our craving for knowledge and professional development, and quench our thirst for lab-driven news?

Liquid biopsies. Obviously. Get it? Thirst? Quench? Yea? I’m sorry, let’s just jump in…

Image 1. This is totally what happens during liquid biopsies, can you guys not visually see DNA? You might need better centrifuges/brighter bulbs—talk about your 10,000 ft. diagnosis, right? (Stock image: Cancer.org)

In my recent social media scroll-binging (which is absolutely normal nowadays, don’t judge) a small story about a published article in JAMA appeared nestled gently between powerful protest content, pandemic virology, and 2020 politics. The article, which was just a small summary of a study in Science that combined liquid biopsy testing with PET-CT imaging to screen and guide interventions for a variety of cancers detected among over 10,000 recruited patients. Detected cancers included anything from solid masses to lymphoma and were found from thyroids to the ovaries. Translation: earlier, more comprehensive detection of malignant neoplasms of all sorts ….*drum-roll, please* ….BY BLOOD TEST! If you’re not impressed with this outright, then don’t fret. This kind of lab testing technology is some Penn & Teller level medical lab science, and I’m very excited about it! I could do a whole talk on this, a professional one, a TEDx one even…scroll to timestamp 4:50:00—of course I’m gonna plug the TEDx talk here. You know me.

Image 2. Remember your A-B-P’s: Always be promoting. Like the TEDx talk I gave, where I talked a bit about liquid biopsies; I don’t know if told you that I did that … (Source: TEDx)

What’s a liquid biopsy anyway?

That’s a great question, I’m glad you asked. Basically, think of it as the pinnacle of precision medicine—the gate key for all diagnoses and prognoses for an individualized treatment regimen based on the principles of known mutagens and detectable proteins and particles. Put plainly, a simple blood test that tests your blood (or other body fluid) for specific biomarkers to clue us in on the presence of an insidious malignancy. What kind of markers? Circulating tumor cells, micro-amounts of relevant RNA, vesicles, modified platelets, and other parts of cells, specific proteins—the list is growing. New concept, right? Not exactly, we’ve known about circulating tumor cells for at least 70 years now (nope, not a typo) but we haven’t been able to accurately hunt for them. We’ve had a concept of this sort of testing since the 70’s but have had a hard time implementing its clinical utility.

Image 3. A clinical lab. Somewhere. Circa 1975. To be a fly on the wall when they decided to skip gas biopsies and jump straight from solid tissue to liquid—what a concept! (Source: Univ. Texas at Austin, College of Health Sciences, historical photo of flu drug development at Memorial Sloan Kettering, NY)

Until the present day. Much like PCR, NGS, MALI-ToF, specialized mass spectrometry, and other awesome tools in our clinical arsenal, the ability is surpassing the paradigm. Whoa—philosophy check: are we moving too fast? Is this a reckless exercise? Should we do more research? No, no, and yes (obviously, always). Liquid biopsies have had pre-Wright brother success in getting airborne, so I’m recruiting all you readers out there to get excited with me and garner interest. Previous limitations might have meant we needed histological diagnosis first—I see you, everyone on the AP side… but these papers I’m showing you all today say basically three things: (1) our technology for liquid biopsy is getting better, (2) we might not need any previous test/section and could use liquid biopsy as a screening tool, (3) combined with imaging studies, this could be highly predictive and clinically useful.

The published study said what…?

Okay, let me show you the papers in the order I saw them: the JAMA article was just a primer in their Biotech Innovations magazine, a summary of an interesting development in liquid biopsies. They referenced the recent study in Science and discussed how 26 of the 10,000 women aged 65-75 were confirmed from liquid biopsy (LB) to imaging with PET-CT and, ultimately, biopsy to conclude. It said that the “blood test combined with the PET-CT had a 99.6% specificity and a 15.6% sensitivity…” with more being detected by LB at follow up. If those numbers triggered you as much as they did me, then of course you would have done what I did and followed the breadcrumbs.

Image 4. (LEFT) the three-tiered method of testing in the Detect-A Science paper and (RIGHT) the nearly 99% specificity of the CancerSEEK liquid biopsy modality in the second referenced Science article.

Que the Science study. In it, the authors presented their three-step testing process, using “Detect-A” LB for baselines. Ultimately 26 cancers in 10 organs were detected by just the blood test; this was out of a total of 96 cancers detected overall in the 10,000 participants either through liquid biopsy, current standards, or other investigative work ups. They did the math and showed that despite a sensitivity of 15.7% for the combined LB and PET-CT, the positive predictive value rose from 5.9% to 40.6% when you combined those two modalities. But the other statistics weren’t as impressive. Back to the JAMA article! The very last line said, “a newer version of the test that has a 99% sensitivity without confirmatory steps is in development…” Okay, now we’re cooking with gas—or testing with liquids—whatever: that’s the holy grail of CP testing 99% sensitivity, 99% specificity! Do tell!

Much ado about liquid—this was less impressive. This last line referenced a Science paper used “CancerSEEK” LB in 1,000 patients with sensitivities from 70-98%, but fantastic 99% specificity. Different panel, different cancers this time. Interesting to note, was that, applied to the specific incidence in the US population for the particular cancers detected by CancerSEEK, the sensitivity was around 55%. And, they managed to keep the cost relatively low at under $500 per test. (Sorry, if a red light just went on while you read this, CMS is probably recording now…) Well, this left me wanting. I’ve read so little about LB’s in recent years, is no one working on them? Well no, I was just busy, there’s tons of stuff out there, silly.

In just the past year alone, the American Journal of Clinical Pathology published 10 pieces on liquid biopsy cases, education, and utility for all kinds of malignancies from cytology to hemepath! AJCP—that’s us guys, it’s happening right here, right now! I told you we’ve got to do a PR run on this stuff and get it out there.

Is this the future? Are we in it now?

I’m happy to report that yes! This is indeed the future, well at least as thought of by the folks that conceptualized liquid biopsies 70 years ago. No hover-cars, or hover-boards, or hover-anything really (not without a lot of tech and work) but we’re closer to small advances in medical diagnostics!

Image 5. Maybe a better conceptual map of what liquid biopsies do. (Source: Gene Quantification)

Nature writer Catherine Alix-Panabieres put it very well when she wrote an Outlook piece this past March. On the one hand, liquid biopsies are a growing clinically useful tool in the synergy of addressing cancer in individualized medicine. On the other hand, we’ve known about this concept and have clearly been working on advancements in this testing technology for decades—it’s about time to come out of the shadow and push into widespread utility, including them in cancer algorithms, and redefining the ways in which cancer work-ups are developed in clinical trials, regulated by safety, and integrated into the toolkit of oncologic diagnostics. In my recent interview with People of Pathology Podcast show-runner, Dennis Strenk, I said we’re not quite ready to replace tissue biopsies yet—but are we close?

When do we go from pushing glass to pushing tubes?

See you next time!

References

Abbasi, J (2020) Blood Test Flags Multiple Cancers in Large Study, JAMA. 2020;323(22):2239. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.9266 → read it here

Alix-Panabieres, C (2020) The future of Liquid Biopsy, Nature 25 Mar 2020 579, S9 doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00844-5 → read it here

Bai, Y, and Haitao, Z (2018) Liquid biopsy in tumors: opportunities and challenges, Annals of Translational Medicine, 2018 Nov; 6 (Suppl 1): S89, doi: 10.21037/atm.2018.11.31 → read it here

CAP (2020) The ‘Liquid’ Biopsy, College of American Pathologists → read it here

Cohen, J, et al. (2018) Detection and localization of surgically resectable cancers with a multi-analyte blood test, Science 23 Feb 2018; Vol. 359, Issue 6378, pp. 926-930, doi: /science.aar3247 → read it here

Lennon, AM, et al. (2020) Feasibility of blood testing combined with PET-CT to screen for cancer and guide intervention, Science doi. 10.1126/science.abb9601 → read it here


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.

A Resident’s Perspective of SARS-CoV-2 Testing Using the Double Diamond Model of Design Process

During the 2019-2020 residency interview season, I “courted” – no better way to describe those interactions over lunch–several potential co-residents, who were eager to know why I came to University of Chicago (NorthShore) for my residency. My answers and those of my fellow residents would help the candidates determine how high they should rank our program, so I enthusiastically recalled things I liked when I interviewed at NorthShore about a year earlier. I had also recently completed my first microbiology rotation in residency and I had enjoyed seeing all of those factors work synergistically to improve patient health outcomes through improved testing. So passionately, I shared how I fell in love with the physical structure of the department which has almost all the labs and offices one floor, the automation of the labs-especially the core and microbiology labs, the capability and regular expansion of its molecular laboratory, the people and of course, “the feel” about NorthShore.

With these experiences, I looked forward to my second microbiology in March 2020, where I would learn more about the diagnostics of various microorganisms–E. coli: Gram negative short stubby/broad shouldered rods vs. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Gram negative long slender rods, etc. (Un)fortunately, March came, but the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) had other plans for my learning. Cases of Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), caused SARS-CoV-2[1] were increasing rapidly in the US, so laboratories, including ours had rapidly implement testing. Rather than have morning rounds and other educational activities where the differential diagnoses of several clinically relevant microorganisms were discussed, we had virtual and in-person meetings discussing what to do about one virus. These continued and by the middle of March, we had become the only non-government lab in Illinois and second in the Midwest that had developed a clinical PCR test for SARS-CoV-2. I was excited to be part of that success, but more so, about learning how we achieved that as a team.

Our approach could be summarized using the Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Plan Do Study Act (PDSA) is an iterative model of quality improvement embedded in the 4D design process.
  1. In the discover phase, a phase of divergent thought [2] and exploration, we identified from events in China and other parts of the world as well as some other states in the US that the community we care for could potentially be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
  2. The next phase- define- is a convergent phase where the problem to be solved, as well as the resources available and resources needed to solve it are delineated [2]. As we transitioned from the discovery to define phases-and recalling the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak about 10 years ago- it became evident that an epidemic of a relatively fatal respiratory virus which we knew very little about was heading our way. As clinical laboratory professionals, our objective was to help identify members of the community who had been infected through testing so appropriate steps could be taken to sequester and care for them. Among our available resources was our molecular laboratory, but like most laboratories outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC we lacked the reagents, primers and authorization to run the test.
  3. Develop is the next phase in the process and this is a divergent phase where the team explores and refines potential solution to the issues and selects one[2]. This is often followed by the convergent deliver phase where one of the solutions from the develop phase is implemented. Feedbacks which are used for projects are also received during this phase[2]. But, the outbreak continued to evolve rapidly [3] with briskly increasing positivity rates[4] and some of the solutions we considered would require some time to be implemented and/or have long turnaround times. For instance, since we had a roust molecular laboratory, one option was to develop our assays and test in-house, while another was to send the samples to outside labs where they could be run. Running the tests in-house would have a shorter turnaround time and would be more efficient, which is extremely important considering the severity of COVID-19.
  4. Deliver is the last phase of the process.  We decided to develop a SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test at our institution, but we also knew we needed to put logistics and protocols in-place to deliver our solution.  For example, COVID-19 presents with flu-like symptoms but flu is common between December and March[5-7] so it would be impractical to expect to test all patients with flu-like symptoms – at least with the limited resources we had. In any case, it was clear that we would not have an ideal amount of time or information to develop and implement the perfect solution. As such, the revolving and fluid nature of the develop and deliver phases of our response is best depicted using the Plan Do Study Act (PDSA), an iterative model of quality improvement. As shown in Fig. 1, we developed and validated our assay, as well as developed an initial protocol for screening patients and logistics for patient-centered delivery in the “Do” step. Importantly, we also reviewed the effectiveness of these operations, and made necessary changes corresponding in the “Study” and “Act” steps respectively.

The prompt decision to implement in-house COVID-19 testing at NorthShore has proven to be the right one. To date we have tested 75,000 specimens and nearly 20,000 tests have been positive. Success which was possible because of the factors which made me come to NorthShore, amongst others. The LEAN, bright and capacious design of the department limits the innate barriers of hierarchical organizational structure; encouraging seamless horizontal and vertical intradepartmental consultation and collaboration as COVID-19 led us into uncharted territory. Also, having a molecular lab that regularly expands its capability made the decision to test in-house relatively easy. In addition, having an automated microbiology lab made it easier for staff to be flexible and deal with the various demands of testing for a new bug in a pandemic. And of course, the people at NorthShore who are ready to volunteer, take up new roles or change shifts to accommodate the demands of a rapidly evolving pandemic, stay in constant communications and provide feedback, and who make everything else at NorthShore work!

References

  1. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200130-sitrep-10-ncov.pdf?sfvrsn=d0b2e480_2
  2. Council, Design. “Eleven lessons: Managing design in eleven global companies-desk research report.” Design Council (2007).
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/summary.html
  4. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200324-sitrep-64-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=723b221e_2
  5. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses#:~:text=symptoms
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
  8. Christoff, Patricia. “Running PDSA cycles.” Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care 48.8 (2018): 198-201.

Adesola Akinyemi, M.D., MPH, is a first year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at University of Chicago (NorthShore). He is interested in most areas of pathology including surgical pathology, cytopathology and neuropathology -and is enjoying it all. He is also passionate about health outcomes improvement through systems thinking and design, and other aspects of healthcare management. Twitter: @AkinyemiDesola

-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania. 

Unwritten Safety Rules Every Lab Professional Should Know

Many years ago a woman purchased a cup of coffee in a restaurant drive-through. Not having a cup holder available in her car, she placed the cup between her legs to hold the coffee while she reached for money to pay for it. She burned her legs, sued the restaurant, and actually won her court case. Now such restaurants are required to warn customers with signs stating the obvious; “coffee served hot.” Before this regulation came to be, however, many people were aware of the possible danger of placing a hot cup near their skin. Does having a posted sign make customers safer? What about the lab environment? There isn’t an explicit safety regulation written for every action that could create an unsafe situation. So what are a few of the hidden and maybe no-so-obvious things might your staff need to know in order to keep safe?

You can’t chew gum in the laboratory. It’s true, but sadly, it’s not written down anywhere as a regulation. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen standard says that “eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or lip balm, and handling contact lenses are prohibited (in the lab).” It says nothing abut gum, throat lozenges, hard candy, or even chewing tobacco. The unwritten rule is that OSHA is trying to prevent hand-to-face contact while working in an area where infections can be acquired easily this way. There are multiple routes of entry via mucous membranes- a major source of pathogen exposure- your mouth, nose, and eyes. Laboratorians should always keep their hands away from their face when working in the department. These activities are just another opportunity for hand- to-mouth contact. While you might be able to show the safety officer you are putting these things in your mouth outside of the lab, you would not be able to prove that to an inspector, and they will rightly cite you for it. If you need help enforcing this, be on the lookout- by the end of the year there will most likely be a regulatory body that addresses gum chewing directly.

How long should staff wear PPE? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have asked about the effectiveness of various PPE and have looked for written guidance discussing how long it should be worn. In general, studies show that gloves lose barrier effectiveness in about two hours. Wear them that long if they are not visibly soiled while in use in the lab. Lab coats- disposable or reusable- can be worn for one week in the general lab setting unless something is spilled on them. Once a new coat is worn, the outside is considered contaminated, but that does not mean it cannot be re-used. It is wasteful to change coats every day unless there is a reason to do that (i.e. in a specialty lab where cross-contamination will be an issue). Face shields worn by staff can be reused as well, and they can be cleaned with alcohol-based products for disinfection. Rarely should a wearable face shield or goggles be used only once before disposal.

Mesh shoes are not allowed to be worn by lab personnel. Again, other than in CLSI guidelines, it will be difficult to find that written clearly in lab safety regulations. Laboratory footwear should “be comfortable and cover the entire foot, including the instep and the heel. Because canvas shoes will absorb chemicals or infectious fluids, they are not recommended. Leather or a synthetic, fluid-impermeable material is suggested. OSHA’s PPE standard does insist that employers take measures to protect the feet of employees. In the lab and specimen collection setting, that means footwear needs to protect from biohazard materials, chemicals, and even sharps. Mesh or canvas shoes do not fit the bill, and neither do clog-style shoes (even if they have a heel strap). If you need to, set your lab’s footwear policy through the dress code or maybe the Chemical Hygiene Plan. If staff tells you they can’t find this type of footwear, tell them to look harder. All across this country, hundreds of laboratory employees are wearing the appropriate shoes, and they are available at several different stores.

Often, because these safety rules are “unwritten,” staff will challenge you on them. It can be difficult to try to enforce these important safety measures if you can’t properly educate the staff about why they exist. Be sure to know your regulatory resources, and don’t be afraid to dig deeply into the references to find the answers you seek. Lab leaders can write their own policy, and it can go above and beyond what the regulations state if needed. The safety standard may not be clear and direct, but it these are still important measures to take. Just like that lady may have needed a sign to prevent her from putting hot coffee in her lap, your staff needs clear safety guidance to keep them safe from a lab-acquired injury or exposure. Provide the tools they need to remain happy and healthy members of your lab team.

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.