Lab Testing Problems Attract Unfavorable Media Attention

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DURING THE PAST TWO WEEKS, problems with laboratory tests received national media coverage, both on television and in print.

The national publicity demonstrates the downside to growing consumer interest in laboratory testing. Journalists are willing to capitalize on public fears about the potential for medical errors.

Early Warning To Labs

Laboratory executives and pathologists should consider this an early warning sign that every laboratory is now at risk for high-profile publicity if there is a perception that test results generated by it were inaccurate and negatively affected patient care.

First was ABC’s PrimeTIME program. On its July 26 broadcast, ABC gave considerable coverage to the $16 million legal settlement won by plaintiff Jennifer Rufer against defendants Abbott Laboratories, Inc. and the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) in Seattle.

In a complicated lawsuit, Mrs. Rufer prevailed on her claims, including one that Abbott’s BHCG (beta human chorionic gonadotropin) laboratory test, performed by UWMC, was flawed. UWMC physicians, responding to her high BHCG score, misdiagnosed her as having cancer and put her through an aggressive program of chemotherapy. She also had a hysterectomy as part of the prescribed anti-cancer regimen.

Only three days later, officials at Philadelphia’s 172-bed St. Agnes Medical Center issued a statement to the news media. It reported that two patients may have died because of “a miscalculation in coagulation studies related to administration of Coumadin, a blood-thinning drug.” Between June 4 and July 25, 932 patients had lab tests affected by the lab’s ongoing error. This story was picked up by the international wire services and received extensive national media coverage.

Physicians responding to the incorrect lab results prescribed higher doses of Coumadin than were actually necessary. Of particular interest is how the error was discovered. One patient, after studying his lab test results, questioned the number and called his physician to bring it to his attention!

Extensive Media Coverage

It is obvious to trained laboratorians that both stories involving misleading test results are rooted in a complex web of technology, work flow processes, and clinical decisions by the referring physician. There are many variables which affect the quality and accuracy of the test result, as well as the interpretation of the test results by the referring doctor.

That matters little to the public, however. They want total trust in their personal lab test results. Anything less is cause for concern! For labs and pathology groups, these two cases provide an example of how quickly a lab’s credibility can be threatened.

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