A Pathology Emergency

Hi everybody! Welcome back. Thanks for following along last month’s update on Zika epidemiology and clinical lab crossovers. This time I’ve got a story to tell…

This is my last month of medical school! And, as such, I decided to go out with a bang and finish up with my last rotation in Emergency Medicine at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. It was a fantastic month! One would think that EM and Path are two very distant specialties, but they are more alike than you might realize. That could be a whole separate article but consider this: managing critical situations, ensuring fast-paced accurate response times, engaging in high-stakes algorithms, and making sure mistakes are caught early. Sounds to me like there’s lots of overlap…remember my discussion on high reliability organizations or the critical role interdisciplinary medicine plays in creating good patient outcomes? All things aside, all clinicians have a critical role to play, but what happens when you put an (almost) pathologist in an emergency room?

Basically, you get me having a fun four weeks—I used to be an EMT and help teach EMS courses, so I do like this stuff. But something else happened this month that really made this experience special…

Image 1. Typically, med students have minor roles to play in real-life critical codes, but some of our duties include managing monitor attachments for vital signs, securing peripheral IV access, obtaining emergency labs, and other supportive measures while the rest of the code team manages…well, the resuscitation efforts. Source: Life in the Fast Lane.

Saturday, July 27th. I got to sleep in because I was on the night shift for four days. No big deal. When I finally got to the hospital, there was pandemonium. Extra ambulances in the loading bay, a couple squad cars outside, a stab wound victim in the trauma bay, lots of noise and folks everywhere—what was routine hospital stuff somehow seemed like I was in the middle of filming an actual episode of ER. (I’m obviously partial to particular shows…okay, maybe Chicago Med?) When I report to my team, I learn that the computers have been down. All day. No electronic health records, no charting, no histories, no internet to look up guidelines/recommendations on UpToDate—and most tragically: no lab results.

Ok. This is it. I’m on the other (read: clinical) side of an awful downtime shift. I’ve experienced plenty of downtime in the lab, but this night I took a deep breath, reminded myself its going to be okay, and did my best to label things right. But a problem appears that’s more serious than labeling type and screens the right way without a computer: results are backlogged for hours! I’m talking no blood gases, no lactic acids, no pregnancy confirmations! I overheard senior residents and my attending that night talk about how the lab is struggling and they didn’t have enough people to figure out this downtime debacle.

This was a moment. It’s not often med students get to be literally useful in any clinical situation but after high-speed thinking about it, I interjected and made my elevator pitch:

“Dr. X, Dr. Y – I’ve got several years of hospital lab experience and lots of background in managing crises and downtime situations, if you want I’ll head over to the lab and see if I can help this situation at all, at least for the ER…”

There was a short pause. Then an enthusiastic wave of approval with hands waving me to go help out our laboratorian colleagues. Please note: the instances where tidbits of knowledge as a medical laboratory scientist prove useful as a medical student on rounds are far and few between for their ability to really captivate a group of doctors who identify themselves far from any lab medicine; so, this was a win. Explaining the importance of order of draw, or why sensitivity goes down when you don’t adequately fill blood cultures, or why peripheral smears should come with some interdisciplinary caveats aren’t quite as sexy as an emergency room, on metaphorical fire, with no one but you knowing anything about how labs work.

So, I ran on over to the laboratory, fully intending to do what I could to help in my unofficial just-a-friendly-neighborhood-med student capacity. That’s when I met Jalissa Hall!

I walked into the main lab area and asked if I could talk to the supervisor, thinking I would just explain my experience and offer what I could to their staff who I’m sure were buried in downtime SOPs and make sure I got critical results back to my team in the ER—a win-win! When I asked who was in charge, a very busy Ms. Hall walked out from behind the chemistry section and said, “you can talk to me. What’s going on?” I’m sure she thought I was there to complain, seemingly like many other clinicians were, but I stopped and gave her the same elevator speech I delivered moments ago with the postscript: “what can I do for you?” I remember she stopped, thought about if for roughly 10 seconds, and presented me with her situation briefing:

  • Computers have been down since roughly 05:00 am
  • There’s a computer virus that had all servers shut down indefinitely
  • There’s no communication between the hospitals EHR and the labs LIS
  • Moreover, no patient information is coming across to the analyzers (MRNs, specimen IDs, etc.)
  • There are 4-5 critical units (ER, OR, ICU, OB, NICU) that require STAT results
  • Clinicians have been coming to the lab all day looking for informal results reporting
  • The limited lab staff has had to manually print results on paper and work to match them with barcodes, specimens, and manual requisitions before releasing results
Image 2. Jalissa Hall, MLS(ASCP) (left) and a very tired me (right) after a great night of solving lab-related communication problems! Anyone else need an emergency room pathologist? Sounds like a new clinical specialty/fellowship to me…

Deal. I know I can’t jump on the analyzers because New York is one of the states that requires clinical laboratory licensure (which I do not hold). In my informal survey I noted three medical lab scientists (including Ms. Hall), someone in specimen processing, and someone in blood bank. Basically, in order to make sure the lab could operate at peak performance with what they had, I helped alleviate the “paper problem” for them at least for the ER specimens. I matched requisitions with instrument raw data, made copies for downtime recording, delivered copied results to the ER, rinsed, lathered, and repeated—for eight hours! I obviously had to toe the line for the ER results, but there were other nurses and doctors who came in for the other areas’ results. No one worked more than the folks in that lab that night, and no one more so than Jalissa. After things cooled down a bit, I got the chance to connect with her and talk about her career and asked if she had anything to share with all of you—she definitely did.

Lablogatory family: please meet Jalissa Hall, MLS (ASCP)!
(Responses paraphrased because, honestly it was late, and downtime was busy, and we were tired, ok?)

Jalissa has been working for about five years as a generalist, with two jobs—like most of us have done. She works at The Brooklyn Hospital Center as a generalist and at NYU Hospital Lab in their hematology section. She is a graduate from the excellent MLS program at Stony Brook University in NY. She’s got ambitious career goals that are aimed at climbing as high as she can in laboratory medicine, and she’s got the enthusiasm and work ethic to match! I got the chance to ask her some real questions, during a real down-time crisis. This is what she had to say:

What made you go into laboratory medicine?

JH: I really want to help people. I love the behind-the-scenes aspect of being a medical laboratory scientist, but I think sometimes it can be too behind the scenes…

What did you think of tonight’s downtime issues?

JH: …it could have gone better. There seems to have been some panic, people kept walking in and shuffling the papers around. I tried my best to organize by floor, have two copies of each result (one for us and one to send upstairs), and requisitions match orders, but it was difficult. We have a downtime protocol, but we just couldn’t keep up with the volume and extent of how long it’s been down for. There’s really been no help outside the lab to work with us during this time so it’s a challenge.

What could have happened better?

JH: No outside help meant no room to breathe. On the inside, supervisors off duty tonight called staff in but none were available to come in. We don’t have an on-call person. We’re understaffed or short-staffed like so many labs out there; it’s problematic.

How is this going to look tomorrow?

JH: It’s not looking good, haha! Morning draw is definitely going to have a hard time. Catching up with these backlogs is one thing, but if orders can’t come across the LIS we’ll have to address that problem for sure. We’ve got a great staff though, so I’m sure it’s going to be fine.

What would be your “top tips” for all our fellow laboratorians reading this?

JH: First and foremost, being driven matters. If you want to get ahead, if you want to excel and climb high within an organization or in our profession, you have to work hard and keep working toward your goals.

Pro-tip #1: One of the biggest issues is “vertical cooperation.” Basically, some call it administration-buy-in, but it means administration working with employees in the lab to make the best decisions for our patients. If employees are burned out or if there aren’t enough resources to effectively perform our responsibilities it creates risks! It all comes down to patients, and making sure we’re in the best position to deliver diagnostic data for them means considering all aspects of lab management.

Pro-tip#2: If we want to fix the workforce shortages our labs regularly experience, we have to increase our efforts in advocacy within our profession. Having programs increase awareness of this job as a profession increases the pull and interest of potential new partners to work with. My school did it, other schools do this; increasing the number of programs that expose students to career opportunities in lab medicine would address our short-staffing problems everywhere!

Pro-tip #3: TELL OTHERS ABOUT OUR PROFESSION! I talked about our role being too behind the scenes…well the way to fix that is professional PRIDE! Own our accomplishments, share our role, advocate for our recognition, celebrate our peers!

Pro-tip #4: The future is not scary. Lots of folks shy away from tech advancement, fearing that automation and other developments mean losing jobs—it doesn’t. Why can’t today’s lab scientists become tomorrows experts on automation, LIS software, and other aspects of our cutting-edge field?

It was a pleasure to meet Jalissa and even better to work alongside her and learn about her passions and goals within the field we both care about! It was particularly special for me to be able to use my knowledge and experience to really contribute to my clinical team and bring laboratory medicine to the forefront where it doesn’t often shine!

Image 3. In a fantastic book I read recently, the authors of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most talk about leadership as a moment—a moment where you step up to a situation because you have skills and experiences which make you uniquely qualified to serve in a role which aims at a positive outcome. I had a small version of that in front of my attending (important for evaluations in medical school of course), but that downtime night was Jalissa’s “you’re it” moment for sure! (Source: Google)

Signing off from any new clinical rotations because this guy’s done with his medical school clerkships! Now I’ve gotta knock out some board exams and go on some residency interviews…wish me luck! I’ll check in with you next month after the 2019 ASCP Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona—hope to see some of you there!

See you all next time and thanks for reading!

–Constantine E. Kanakis MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BS in Molecular Biology and Bioethics and then Rush University with an MS in Medical Laboratory Science. He is currently a medical student actively involved in public health and laboratory medicine, conducting clinicals at Bronx-Care Hospital Center in New York City.

Educating the Doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



The State of Graduate Medical Education and Meeting Our Nation’s Health Needs

The Institute on Medicine (IOM), the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences that provides analysis and advice on national health issues, released its report “Graduate Medical Education that Meets the Nation’s Health Needs” on July 29, 2014. Citing a lack of transparency and accountability in our current system and discordance with producing the types of physicians necessary to meet our nation’s health needs, the IOM recommended a significant overhaul of our current system of graduate medical education (GME) financing and governance over the next ten years.

Since the creation of Medicare in 1965, the federal government has provided the majority of funding for the post-graduate training of physicians with about two-thirds provided by Medicare. Originally intended as a temporary measure until a more suitable one could be found, this system has financed GME since 1965. Approximately, $15 billion ($9.7 billion from Medicare) was spent in 2012 to support GME funding.1 The IOM’s report remain recommendations unless enacted into law by Congress so aggressive lobbying efforts are expected in the forthcoming months.

In fact, there has already been quick and varied response by multiple academic medical organizations: the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the American Hospital Association (AHA), and the American Medical Association (AMA) vehemently opposed and warned that the IOM’s recommendations would destabilize our current GME infrastructure while the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) supported the recommendations and the American College of Physicians (ACP) falls somewhere in between. If we break down the major recommendations of the report, the reasons for each organization’s opinions become more apparent but this does not necessarily help us to determine the best way to distribute GME funding to address our future healthcare workforce needs.

Currently, there are two components to GME funding from the federal government: direct and indirect. Direct graduate medical education (DGME) funding provides for the “direct costs” of teaching hospitals for the training of residents: the salaries and benefits of residents and the faculty who supervises them, the salaries of GME administrative staff, and allocated institutional overhead costs such as electricity, space rental, and maintenance. Each hospital receives DGME funding as a per-resident amount (PRA) which is hospital specific and calculated as the DGME costs in 1984 (or 1985) divided by the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) residents per year.2 This PRA is updated annually with an inflation factor and adjustment for that hospital’s resident count, limited, of course, by that hospital’s resident cap (number of allowed total residents) set by the Congressional Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997.

The Medicare portion of DGME is calculated by a ratio based on the number of total in-patient days in that hospital spent by Medicare patients divided by the total number of in-patient days by all patients. There are separate PRA’s for primary care and non-primary care residents with those in primary care specialties (family medicine, general internal medicine, general pediatrics, OB/Gyn, preventative medicine, geriatric medicine, general osteopathic medicine) receiving a slightly higher amount. This is due to a congressional freeze on PRA inflation updates on non-primary care residents in 1994 and 1995.

Indirect graduate medical education (IME) funding are additional amounts paid to teaching hospitals for the “indirect costs” of being a teaching hospital. They generally incur more costs than non-teaching hospital settings due to having a sicker patient load and more “non-quantifiable” costs (eg – residents ordering extra tests).3 This payment is based on a formula that takes into account the ratio between the number of interns and residents and the number of patient beds (IRB ratio) adjusted with a variable multiplier and IRB ratio caps that are set by Congress. IME funding is not weighted like DGME funding where the number of residents in their “initial residency period” (IRP) are counted as 1.0 FTE and those beyond this period as 0.5 FTE.

Of course, these funding formulas can get very complicated and are adjusted with each new Congressional legislative action on GME. But now that you have a rudimentary idea of how the federal government and Medicare fund our education as residents, let’s consider the recent IOM recommendations.

IOM Recommendation #1: aggregate GME funding should remain at current levels ($15 bil/yr) with adjustments only made for inflation over the next ten years while the recommended new GME policy is implemented; the bulk of funding ($10 bil/yr) will continue to come from Medicare.

Supporting Argument: the current GME system is unsustainable and needs to become more performance- and value-based as healthcare system evolves under healthcare reform; this would provide stable (albeit not increased) funding over this transitional period.

Opposing Argument: for years, academic medical associations and their allies have recommended an increase in GME funding stating that the rate of increase has not kept up with inflation and the expense of educating our nation’s future healthcare workforce; additionally, they have consistently recommended lifting the GME cap with little success.

IOM Recommendation #2: a new GME Policy Council should be established within the Office of Health and Human Services to provide guidance on GME issues and a new GME Center within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to administer GME funding.

Supporting Argument: more transparency and accountability is needed to make sure that our dollars are well spent to produce more efficient use and better health outcomes for patients.

Opposing Argument: more bureaucratic and inefficient “red tape” and hoops to jump through without added benefit.

IOM Recommendation #3: eliminate the DGME and IME structure and replace with an Operational Fund to finance existing GME programs; the other portion of funding would support a Transformational Fund focused on innovation and programs in needed and underserved areas.

Supporting Argument: the Operational Fund would provide for currently existing programs so as not to destabilize GME funding during the proposed transition; the Transformational Fund would be targeted to address the current geographic and subspecialty maldistribution that exists.

Opposing Argument: the geographic and subspecialty maldistribution is nothing new but merely funneling more money toward these areas will not necessarily provide more healthcare professionals in these underserved areas or specialties, especially as long as student loan financing structures remain as they are currently. This recommendation also will significantly affect the funding amounts currently received by teaching hospitals, especially urban based hospitals, where the majority of GME takes place.

IOM Recommendation #4: provide funding based on PRA only with geographic adjustments and end payments based on Medicare in-patient days, IRB ratio, and other factors currently in the funding formula. These PRA funds would be directed to the GME sponsors who are responsible for the actual educational content for the training of interns and residents rather than to teaching hospitals alone. GME sponsors can be teaching hospitals, educational institutions, community health centers, or GME consortia.4

Supporting Argument: funding would go directly to those responsible the actual educational content which may be a non-teaching hospital setting; studies do not support a physician workforce shortage, especially in primary care specialties.

Opposing Argument: this recommendation again will disproportionately hurt teaching hospitals as they tend to have a sicker patient load, have more patient beds, and have access to more expensive tests and treatments than more community-based and/or non-teaching hospitals; teaching hospitals often are the main settings for GME, although not necessarily the only settings, and may need to make cuts based on resident education versus operational costs of the hospital with reduction of resident slots as the outcome when a physician workforce shortage is looming.

The IOM recommendations assert to support a more targeted, performance-based investment in the training of our future healthcare workforce but do they really? Obviously, GME funding has been a hotly debated topic for the past 50 years so there are no simple solutions and everyone has their own biased opinion. Even though I have some health policy and advocacy training from my MPH and grassroots organizing background, I don’t profess to be a health policy wonk by any means so I encourage you to become more informed and decide your own opinion. And if so inclined, become more involved in health policy advocacy with the political action committees (PAC) of your affiliated academic medical organizations to lobby for your beliefs.

You can read or download an electronic copy of the report free online at: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2014/Graduate-Medical-Education-That-Meets-the-Nations-Health-Needs.aspx

1. Institute on Medicine (IOM). Graduate Medical Education that Meets the Nation’s Health Needs. July 29, 2014. 256 pages.

2. American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). Medicare Direct Graduate Medical Education (DGME) Payments; accessed on 8/8/14 at https://www.aamc.org/advocacy/gme/71152/gme_gme0001.html

3. T Johnson and TW Coons. Recent Developments in DGME and IME Payments. American Health Lawyers Association. Updated by Laurie Garvey on 3/16/10; accessed on 8/9/14 at http://www.healthlawyers.org/Events/Programs/Materials/Documents/MM10/coons_johnson.pdf

4. E. Salsberg. IOM Graduate Medical Education Report: Better Aligning GME Funding with Healthcare Workforce Needs. Health Affairs Blog. July 31, 2014; accessed on 8/10/14 at http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2014/07/31/iom-graduate-medical-education-report-better-aligning-gme-funding-with-health-workforce-needs/



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