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.

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.

How One Phlebotomist Can Positively Influence Patient Care

Can you remember where you were when an experience showed you who you could be? I do. After graduating college, I wanted to find a way to harmonize my passion for community with my need to make an impact on society, so I began volunteering at the University of Colorado in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. I had an experience there that inspired me and has shaped my career’s trajectory.

During one quiet day on the unit a phlebotomy technician approached me with a task: to obtain a couple positive and uplifting movies for a patient who would most likely not make it through to the next day. Confident in my ability to achieve this, I hurried down to the volunteer office. As I looked through the selection of DVDs, I became disheartened. Nothing in their collection would do. All I could think was that this patient was living his last moments, and I couldn’t provide a happy distraction.  When I returned, my sorrow was quickly reversed when I found the technician by the patient’s bedside, using her phone to watch his favorite movie with him. I was so moved by her compassion,  I hosted a DVD drive to collect positive, uplifting movies for situations like this

I called numerous radio stations to get the word out and was featured on the local country radio station’s morning show to announce my drive and mission. My volunteer position, in combination with my customer service job, had allowed me to develop a large clientele and access to a community willing to help me in my efforts. I was touched by all the patrons who passed out flyers in the neighborhood about the drive. I ended up collecting over 200 DVDs, which I proudly delivered to the volunteer office. This intersection of medicine and community allowed me to experience firsthand the power of compassion in the medical community. I discovered my profound ability to bring together a community of unlikely individuals in an insightful and moving way. This experience also made me think seriously about the possibility of becoming a phlebotomy technician.  

Four  months, later I was practicing the art of phlebotomy in a hospital setting. As a phlebotomist I was doing more than drawing blood; I was learning the fundamentals of healthcare such as patient privacy, patient advocacy, and how to prevent the transmission of disease. I learned the importance of diagnostic and laboratory testing, how blood samples can provide clues to diagnosis and treatment.  Over the years my patients have shown me the meaning of tragedy and triumph, hope and disappointment, and most of all, the importance of being kind and gentle to those who are sick and in need. After drawing blood for more than 5 years with nearly 15,000 hours of patient care experience, I’ve learned the duty of a phlebotomist extends beyond the needle. It requires passion for diagnostic testing, patient education, patient advocacy, as well as dedication and commitment to others, to opportunities to learn, to engage in team collaboration and the ability to provide passionate medical care. Phlebotomy allows you to approach medicine with a multidisciplinary mindset and the ability to work in a medical community with a discourse of many facets under the unified goal of improving the quality of life across communities both nationally and abroad. 

Before I witnessed the compassionate care of a phlebotomy technician, I was unsure of how to combine  my passion for community with a rewarding career. In witnessing such compassion and care beyond duty, I was inspired to help, which ultimately inspired a community. That one experience showed me who I was supposed to be and what I am today – Kristi Nelson, Clinical Laboratory/Phlebotomy Coordinator.

That first experience now serves as the standard of care for my own phlebotomy team. I ensure we provide patient care that extends beyond the expectation, care that inspires change and creates a butterfly effect of positivity and compassion, in the same way that the phlebotomist had inspired me. This is just one example of how a phlebotomy interaction not only with a patient, but with other medical professionals (volunteers included) can influence patient care and the future of medicine in a positive way.

-Kristi Nelson is a Laboratory Coordinator for the Clinical Laboratory, Client Services and Customer Support at Orlando Regional Medical Center. It was through her work as a certified phlebotomist and emergency medical technician that Kristi found her passion for the healthcare community and leadership. Kristi’s leadership style follows the belief that if your actions inspire others to, learn more, do more and become more then you are a leader. Kristi demonstrates her passion for leadership by participating as the Compliance & Ethics Ambassador, Orlando Health Way Ambassador, and spokesperson for Orlando Health’s volunteer campaigns for the laboratory. Kristi holds a BA in Women’s and Ethnic Studies from the University of Colorado. Kristi is completing her BS in Neuro Psychology from the University of Central Florida and a dual Masters of Business Administration and Science Management and Leadership from Webster University.

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.

The Social Medium is the Message

Hello again everyone and welcome back to Lablogatory!

If you read my post last time, I talked about preserving integrity and delivery of our professional duty as laboratorians in the face of both overwhelming pandemic demands as well as working to  advocate for our field as more people realize each day what goes into every single lab result around the world. A run on sentence and a heavy discussion—and it was just in time to celebrate Lab Week 2020!

This time let’s expand on the second topic a bit. Advocacy in our profession and spotlighting our critical roles as pathologists and medical laboratory scientists. As much as you or I might agree that this is proof positive, just from looking at the regular old news media this year, it’s not so easy. But something that’s been quietly creeping higher and higher on the Lab-Med radar this past year or so is now growing faster than it ever has before: Social Media.

The medium you disseminate information on also translates a message about the author/speaker. For me, I was not only staying the course about data-driven testing science regarding COVID, but I took every ad-lib and opportunity to praise the medical laboratory profession. I praised laboratorians for their hard work, and took a minute to say clearly and plainly, that they are indisputably healthcare heroes in this season of notability. In doing so, I found myself addressing a more pressing pandemic: The Path and MLS pipeline problem. We have a serious issue with finding new medical laboratory scientists and medical students to go into our field. The main cause and culprit? Our essential clinical invisibility. As we are much less patient facing than our other colleagues, it’s difficult to expose younger students considering various careers in healthcare to our specialty. Cue Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even TikTok.

Image 1. Throwback to the 2019 ASCP Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ. Dr. Kamran Mirza (left), myself, and Dr. Adam Booth (right) are all part of the growing community of pathologists/trainees plugged into the social network to advocate, collaborate, and spotlight our profession. Follow them both on twitter at: @KMirza and @ALBoothMD, they are champions of using social media as an educational connection.

I’ve talked about this before. And, of course, I’m biased: I’m on the official ASCP Social Media Communications Committee and was highly active in previous iterations including the #SoMeTeam as well as ASCP Social Media Ambassadors programs. Anyone who reads my pieces here knows I’m not social media shy—heck, I weaponized my online presence for residency interview season, networking around the clock to get my name and my work out there for programs to notice. Spoilers: it worked really, really well.

(If you’re one of those senior medical students who is preparing to practice the age-old tradition of wiping the internet clean of your presence, consider a 180 turnaround from that plan—at least if you’re applying to pathology…)

So what worked so well for me? Well, first some background. You know I’m on two ASCP committees, CCPD and Social Media. I’ve already told you I’ve been working the social media angles for a while now, at ASCP meetings, sharing content, etc. And I had a super busy, and super rewarding, residency interview season. With rotations and interviews at some amazing places, I was able to both learn a lot about what it is I really want to do and meet folks to talk about it with. All that being said, sometimes things just fall into place. Specifically, a global pandemic happened. …too soon?

I’m not going to rehash the early days of the pandemic for you, or talk about how I became involved on the ground floor of a lot of outreach and education efforts: that was sooo last month, I did that already (read it all here). But what I will talk about is the butterfly effect that each media engagement set into place for me.

Image 2. When everyone’s talking, the loudest microphone gets the audience. When no one’s making sense, the best content wins. Many of the talks and interviews since the very first ones with my friend and colleague Dr. Ajufo set up a cascade of content to answer some serious concerns during these strange times.

In effect, the order of events for me these last few months looked like this:

  • Writing pieces for Lablogatory¸ some based in scientific analysis of testing, some to address public health concerns and education.
  • Making small viral online tid-bits aimed at educating lay people about overall health, avoiding exposure, and what testing means.
  • Social media connection to join the #PathCast lecture series, of which my video has garnered approximately 20,000 individual views and was seen in almost 50 countries.
  • Invitations from CDC-funded training agencies to explain testing considerations, virology details in translational science, and discuss how those most vulnerable to social determinants of health are most inequitably affected by pandemic conditions.
  • Informal features where I was invited to discuss those intersectional tenets of medicine, public health, and socioeconomics with lay persons in a virtual group setting.
  • An interview with Lifehacker magazine’s Vitals section, to answer reddit-style ask-me-anything questions regarding COVID testing online live with open to the public availability.
  • Inclusion in Lifehacker magazine’s online podcast, where I was featured alongside other experts to discuss the effect of the pandemic on many aspects of life from health to finances.
  • An interview with The Endless Files Podcast¸ where I was invited as a content expert to discuss the connections between laboratory data, public health, public policy, and discuss the political climate surrounding coronavirus concerns all over the sociopolitical spectrum.
  • An interview with People of Pathology Podcast which gave me the chance to talk about my individual career path and transition from education about testing to advocacy and representation for our amazing profession.
  • The nomination and selection by my medical school faculty and peers to deliver the student charge at my formal, virtual, medical graduation.
  • …more are on the way!

Why am I listing these things? Is it my misplaced Greek hubris? Maybe. But before I fly too close to the sun, I’m trying to prove a point. That what started out as creating content on social media for health and wellness during a pandemic essentially became a snowball by summer. I was addressing pressingly relevant information during the obvious opportunity to step up and educate. But something else was happening; something I didn’t realize until recently. And whatever it was, I wasn’t getting there alone.

**All of this was made possible by social media recommendations and connections from friends and colleagues!**

PathCast? I was recommended by a pathologist friend on ASCP’s CCPD committee with me. The CDC-funded training? A former grad student friend of mine when I studied at Rush. Lifehacker? Made possible in a public call for content by our favorite medical lab scientist and Lablogatory editor, Kelly Swails. The Endless Files? Reached out to an old political science professor and friend at Loyola. People of Pathology? Social media connections with friends and CLS colleagues in Canada—you want to make things happen? Don’t go at it alone!

Don’t know how to get started in all this social media frenzy? Don’t fret. Basically, here’s a four-step process: make accounts on one or all of your favorite platforms, follow everyone you want to learn more from, share other’s content or your own frequently, and (most importantly) promote others before yourself! There are countless webinars and talks on how to use social media to leverage advocacy and education, just look at some of the greatest pathology teachers on Twitter: @KMirza, @CArnold_GI, @MArnold_PedPath, @RodneyRhode, @HermelinMD, @KreuterMD, @JMGardnerMD, and many, many more. But there’s more than just twitter! Many super talented folks team up to produce lectures, webinars, and even podcasts (check out the brand-spankin’-new PathPod here!)

Just dive in!

Image 3. Virtual graduation, social media outreach. 2-for-1 sale. In my on-screen graduation quote during the conferment of degrees, part of it read “don’t let me be the last pathologist you were friends with…” and during my student address, I implored my classmates and anyone else watching to consider creative, new ways to solve clinical problems. Maybe with new tools, new skills, and a new understanding of interdisciplinary collaboration. I also reminded people that our digital presence can indicate our professional message, as champions of truth in science.

In conclusion, social media is the new (old) heavy hitter in the medical world. Younger med students are getting access to more specialty information than they ever have before, informing and guiding their career choices. Specialists of all kinds share and reshare excellent diamonds of content that galvanize medical discourse everywhere from Twitter to TikTok. What does this do? It closes the gap between professionals across disciplines, shines new spotlights on fields that traditionally got stamped with basement autopsy stereotypes, and creates digestible and understandable bridges for lay people to access our jargon-filled discourse. It only goes up from here.

Post-script: if you haven’t noticed the racially charged, horrible situations adding to the tumultuousness of 2020, there’s another lesson in this. Social media again proves a most-valuable and all-powerful tool to mobilize, demonstrate, collaborate, and unify thoughts, ideas, and causes. I doubt we will ever be free of tragic moments in history, but when we come together as one collective we can use our various platforms to honor heroes, shame wrong doers, celebrate positive change, and highlight systemic failings that might hold us back from true progress, justice, and peace. That includes the medical world, as all things cross at the intersections of human life and human rights.

Thank you for reading! Stay safe, stay well, and continue to practice safe, compassion-informed social distancing. The pandemic isn’t over, and neither is our work.

Until 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.

Laboratory Safety and COVID-19: References You Need to Know

Three months ago, life in the laboratories in these United States carried on as usual, and no one could probably have predicted where we stand today. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way laboratorians work everywhere. Some staff have had hours cut because of decreased workloads, other labs worked around the clock to bring new testing on board, and others dealt with staffing shortages due to illness. It has been a wild ride, and through it all, a great many safety issues have arisen. Common lab practices are now viewed through a new lens- is it acceptable to bring hematology slides for review into a clean pathologist’s office? Can we wear surgical masks worn in the lab into the break room? There are many good questions, but some of the answers can be found using references offered from reliable sources. Not everything you read online can be believed, but here are some references that may be necessary and that provide important information.

The pandemic has created a world-wide shortage of PPE, and some have wondered what can be done as resources diminish. The CDC has some good information about calculating how long PPE can be used and how long it can last. There are good guidelines about re-use and extended use of PPE.

PPE Burn Rate Calculator:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/burn-calculator.html

Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html

There are specific references regarding respirators and how they should be used.

Respiratory Protection During Outbreaks: Respirators versus Surgical Masks

Understanding the Use of Imported Non-NIOSH-Approved Respirators

Proper N95 Respirator Use for Respiratory Protection Preparedness

Some laboratory disinfectants have become more difficult to purchase. The gold standard for disinfection remains a 10% bleach solution, but there are many other options that can be used as well.

Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (EPA List N):

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2

EPA’s Registered Antimicrobial Products Effective Against Human HIV-1 and Hepatitis B Virus:

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-d-epas-registered-antimicrobial-products-effective-against-human-hiv-1

The CDC also offers laboratories a set of COVID-19 guidelines for performing testing, biosafety issues, waste management, and protection against aerosols. These guidelines are thorough, and they can be very helpful should safety challenges arise.

Interim Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines for Handling and Processing Specimens Associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19):

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/lab/lab-biosafety-guidelines.html

Many of these references are updated regularly, so be sure you go to go to the source when making safety policy about COVID-19 tasks.

Laboratorians are now literally on the front lines during this novel coronavirus pandemic. While many public and commercial services have been scaled back, restaurants are closing, and many people are staying or working at home, lab staff are doing their level best to keep coming to work despite the extremely unusual circumstances and hardships.

I am here to serve as well. If you have questions about how to safely navigate this national (and global) emergency while working in the lab, ask me (info@danthelabsafetyman.com). I will do my best to provide any lab safety resources you may need. Make sure the decisions you make during these days are safe, sound, and based on the most recent resources available to you.

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.

COVID-19 Laboratory Safety: The Wrong Conclusion?

In the classic Barry Manilow song, Copa Cabana, the singer admonishes his audience at the end not to fall in love. We are told to avoid love because some guy named Rico might exterminate our loved one and we will end up a drunken barfly like Lola in did in the song. It’s a pretty funny conclusion when you think about it. If you were the victim in the story though, you might draw the same conclusion, however flawed. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, laboratorians are seeing people draw incorrect conclusions as well, and some of those assumptions are leading to some potentially unsafe practices in some laboratories.

It’s easy to understand and even to forgive any misconceptions. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. The virus is new, it has spread very quickly, and there are unknowns about its make-up and mode of transmission. The situation has changed rapidly, and agencies like the CDC have had to change safety recommendations almost daily at times. Couple that with a media that by its nature uses fear and drama to ensure continued viewership, and people everywhere are going to make some fast decisions, and not all of them will be good.

One example of a change in guidance came from the CDC. At first, they were very careful not to give out any more information for lab safety than what was posted on their COVID-19 web page. When asked if typical lab specimens (blood and urine) from COVID-19 patients could be transported via a pneumatic tube system, they said that all specimens should be hand-carried to the lab. Since many patients were asymptomatic and many more could not be tested because of kit shortages, that would basically mean that all specimens in all hospitals would be carried to the lab. Before hospitals could react or even find the information, the CDC changed its recommendations. Only respiratory specimens from these patients should be carried directly to the lab (https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dls/locs/2020/transport_recommendations_for_covid-19_specimens.html), blood and urine can safely be transported. Given what is known about viruses and other pathogens in blood, walking all specimens to the lab doesn’t sound like a necessary guideline, does it? But this judgement in guidance simply illustrates what can happen when a situation changes rapidly.

With the push for the need for COVID-19 testing, news has come out about specimen collection kits and new and faster testing platforms. Not everything that has been reported has been factual. Every night we see numbers of cases and mortality rates reported in the media. Mathematically, one cannot determine a mortality rate without knowing the total number of patients’ cases. If there aren’t enough test swabs and reagents, and if we don’t test those who are asymptomatic (estimated to be about 25% of cases), how can we calculate any kind of accurate rate? Some laboratories have been pushed to bring on testing, and with little experience with brand new instruments, there has been work performed in some locations without adequate PPE or other safety measures. Look at your testing platform. Review the steps to see if there are any potential aerosol-creating steps. Are the correct PPE or engineering controls in place? Now more than ever it is vital to adhere to lab safety regulations while paying attention to the latest COVID-19 safety guidance. If you feel there is work being performed without adequate safety protection, escalate the situation as soon as possible. There will be no one to run teste if all of the laboratory staff becomes sick.

In many locations, hospitals have responded to the shortage of N95 respirators and surgical masks by developing methods to decontaminate and reuse them. While that is an innovative idea, make sure the system in place has physical and biological checks in place to ensure the reprocessing is effective. Spot test disinfected N95 respirators by performing fit-testing with them as batches are reprocessed. Use a biological indicator to ensure the COVID-19 virus particles have been eradicated. Do not reprocess N95 respirators used for protection against tuberculosis unless it is certain the disinfection process is known to effectively destroy TB bacteria.

Sometimes we come to the wrong conclusion, and sometimes mistakes are made, even in the world of science. But we are human, and we have to come to terms with that or we might end up alone in a disco like the aforementioned Lola. That’s why it’s important that we stop for a moment and pause, especially when an event occurs rapidly and transforms the very environment where we work. Take the time to ensure safety measures are in place for everyone involved. If something doesn’t make sense, question it. Examine it, and work with your staff as a team to make sure we can do what we are called to do- to safely perform lab work in order to provide quality results for the patients we serve.

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.

Biomarker Testing for Cancer Patients: Barriers and Solutions Part 5

This month we will continue discussing the common barriers to biomarker testing for cancer patients in the community.

As you may recall, these are the top 10 barriers that I’ve seen to biomarker testing in the community:

  1. High cost of testing.
  2. Long turnaround time for results.
  3. Limited tissue quantity.
  4. Preanalytical issues with tissue.
  5. Low biomarker testing rates.
  6. Lack of standardization in biomarker testing.
  7. Siloed disciplines.
  8. Low reimbursement.
  9. Lengthy complex reports.
  10. Lack of education on guidelines.

When I go into the community and discuss barriers to biomarker testing while everyone can relate to 1-2 barriers, those barriers are typically not the same at every hospital. However, reimbursement is almost always presented as a barrier to biomarker testing. The reimbursement process may be confusing and there have been recent changes. If everything is not submitted properly, testing may not be covered. Let me start by saying I have no magic bullet to fix the problems with molecular pathology billing and I’m not the expert on billing. I have had to navigate the reimbursement process and can share my experiences.

Let’s start with Medicare as they represent a payer all of us have to work with and we frequently see other insurers make coverage decisions based on Medicare rates. The Medicare coverage for single gene testing has historically covered the testing, albeit maybe not at a rate we consider acceptable. In 2018 Medicare issued a national coverage determination (NCD) for NGS if the patient has stage III or IV cancer and the NGS assay has an FDA-approved or cleared indication for use in that patient’s cancer and results are provided to the treating physician for management of the patient using a report template to specify treatment options (1). This means if you use a reference laboratory that has an assay that is approved as a companion diagnostic for a drug that is approved in the tumor type you are testing, the test could be covered. For the test to be covered the correct CPT code from the AMA would need to be applied, an ICD-10 qualifying code to meet medical necessity, and if your state is covered by the MolDX program you would also need to provide a Z-code that is specific for the test. Confused yet?  

There is also a Medicare 14-day rule (formally called Date of Service Regulation 42 C.F.R. §414.510). This rule requires the performing lab to bill the hospital for certain tests that are ordered less than 14 days after an inpatient or outpatient discharge. There was a change as of January 1, 2018 that allows labs to bill for certain molecular pathology tests if the patient was admitted as an outpatient (think biopsy performed in hospital but patient was not admitted as an inpatient). This does not negate the 14 day rule, but it gives us some exceptions so that we may bill for molecular pathology testing ordered after the patient was discharged. This rule also mandates that the performing lab is the billing lab.

For payers that are not Medicare, it is helpful to have a conversation with the medical director or a customer service representative to get information on how to get your test covered. We have presented to the medical directors for private payers. While we did cover the scientific merit of our testing, we also had to go over financials for the payer. It was helpful to speak their language and provide clear information on the financial benefit to NGS over single gene testing.

Many of the reference laboratories will handle the billing for you if your hospital contract with them is written that way. This would allow those of us that are not billing experts to ensure all of the coding is applied properly. Of course you would still need to supply the information to the reference laboratory. These labs also offer low out of pocket costs to the patient. If you are insourcing testing, I would recommend having a molecular billing consultant. There are consultants available that allow you to submit questions and pay per question. This has come in handy for my organization.

Lastly, I urge you to join and get involved with organizations that represent the laboratory community such as CAP, AMP, ASCP, etc. These organizations help address policy change to ensure molecular testing is reimbursed in a fair manner. Molecular pathology results have value for the patient and cost money to be performed. We should expect fair payment for the service rendered.

Reference

  1. National Coverage Analysis (NCA) for Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) for Medicare Beneficiaries with Advanced Cancer (CAG-00450N). 1/21/19

-Tabetha Sundin, PhD, HCLD (ABB), MB (ASCP)CM,  has over 10 years of laboratory experience in clinical molecular diagnostics including oncology, genetics, and infectious diseases. She is the Scientific Director of Molecular Diagnostics and Serology at Sentara Healthcare. Dr. Sundin holds appointments as Adjunct Associate Professor at Old Dominion University and Assistant Professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School and is involved with numerous efforts to support the molecular diagnostics field. 

Maintaining Laboratory Personnel Competency During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic crises the United States is experiencing has highlighted the importance of having trained and competent laboratory professionals. Providing accurate, reliable, and timely testing to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of disease is the primary goal of the medical laboratory. The ability to meet the laboratory’s goal hinges on the competency of the individuals performing patient testing.

The importance of having qualified personnel to perform laboratory testing is magnified during a disease pandemic where each positive or negative result has public as well as patient concerns. (The results are also monitored by local and national officials as well as the media.) Verifying the competency of qualified individuals performing patient testing is accomplished through conducting knowledge and skill assessments at defined frequencies.

Despite the urgency of the moment, laboratories must still follow the CLIA ’88 regulations allowing only trained and qualified individuals to perform patient testing. In addition, CLIA ’88 mandates that the competency of laboratory testing personnel conducting non-waived moderate and/or high complexity testing must be assessed semi-annually after the individual begins patient testing, and thereafter annually (CFR §493.1413.9 and 493.1451.9). (The terms semi-annual and six-month are used interchangeably.)

Some specific initiatives have been implemented in response to the pandemic. The FDA has issued several emergency use authorizations (EUA) for COVID-19 tests to help address the testing needs of the nation. (A EUA allows a company to bring a medical device to the market much faster.) The College of American Pathologist (CAP) has also clarified the training requirements for laboratory testing personnel. According to the CAP’s latest guidance, the same training records may be used at different hospitals if testing is standardized across a hospital system. However, competency of non-waived testing must be completed at each site testing is performed irrespective of whether testing is standardized or not.

CLIA regulations explicitly state that competency of an individual performing non-waived moderate or high complexity testing at a CLIA-approved laboratory must be assessed semi-annually in the first year the individual performs patient testing. Many laboratories have interpreted the regulation as requiring an employee to do six-month competencies in each discipline. That is an incorrect interpretation.

Regardless of the discipline, once an employee has been trained on a test system, CLIA only requires two six-month competencies after the individual has begun patient testing unobserved.

Many laboratory training programs include the employee performing patient testing under the supervision of a qualified trainer. The trainee may test patient samples during training, but the tasks are considered a part of the overall test system training program. Once a trainee has completed training on a test system, signed-off by the trainer, and begins performing patient testing on a test system, the laboratory should schedule the two competency assessment dates.

Simply stated, the clock for the timing of the two six-month competencies begins when the employee is trained on a test system and begins testing patient samples unobserved. (Often, this is the day when the employee has been placed on the laboratory’s work schedule even though they may still need training in other departments.)

Depending on the length of training and size of the laboratory, the first six-month competencies may include test systems from different disciplines. Almost without exception (especially in small to medium-sized hospital laboratories), the second six-month competencies should cover the majority of the tests in the laboratory the employee uses to perform patient testing. It is important to remember that all test systems the employee is using to perform patient testing must be assessed on the due date of each six-month competency.

It is not unreasonable to expect there may be delays in meeting the timing of competencies during a pandemic. However, there are no exceptions for training and competency frequency. With many cities having a large number of civilians and employees infected, it is highly likely laboratory staffing will be negatively affected. Laboratory managers and supervisors should be vigilant in documenting any problems or delays which may impact compliance with the regulations. Documents explaining the circumstances involved in any regulatory or accrediting failure will prove invaluable during and after an inspection.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the nation’s healthcare system. It has placed a spotlight on the valuable role laboratories fill in delivering quality healthcare. Medical laboratories are only able to meet the challenges because dedicated qualified and highly-trained individuals staff them. Laboratory administrators, managers, and supervisors must remember that training and competency assessments are ongoing and required during the pandemic and after.

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. He has a Masters of Healthcare Administration from Ashford University, a Doctorate of Psychology from The University of the Rockies, and is a Certified Quality Auditor (ASQ). He is a Laboratory Quality Coordinator for Sentara Healthcare. Sentara Laboratory Services provides services for 12 full-service hospitals, five ambulatory care centers, and a large number of medical group practices. Dr. Elzie provides laboratory quality oversight for four hospitals, one ambulatory care center, and supports laboratory quality initiatives throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.