Preparing for the Unexpected and Unimagined

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WHO WOULD HAVE EVER PREDICTED THAT A PHLEBOTOMIST would reuse needles? Just as surprising, who would have ever predicted that the phlebotomist would be working at a respected clinical laboratory like SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories (SBCL)?

This shocking story is a reminder that laboratory executives should never forget to anticipate every potential problem, no matter how outlandish. It is a reminder that the human element of unpredictability is always with us. No matter how rigorous the training, no matter how effective the management and supervision, individual employees are capable of doing unexpected, outlandish, and irrational things…usually at the most inopportune of moments.

You can appreciate the consequences to SBCL from the actions of this single “rogue” phlebotomist. One of healthcare’s most respected and ethical corporations must now endure widespread negative publicity as well as the legitimate anger and anguish of affected patients and their referring physicians. It is a stain that does not easily disappear.

As you learn more about the facts surrounding this situation, you should ask yourself several questions. Could something similar to this happen within my laboratory? Is my laboratory prepared to deal with the publicity and consequences of such crises? More importantly, is my laboratory organized to prevent these types of events from happening?

Remember, laboratories handle things which affect the health of individual patients in a variety of ways. Just this month, television’s 20/20 News program profiled the “deficiencies” of nationally-prominent laboratories in diagnosing melanomas because they didn’t use board-certified dermatopathology subspecialists. Whether the television journalists understand the medical science involved or not, laboratories they brand as “deficient” will find themselves undergoing unwanted public scrutiny.

Given the reality of today’s society, laboratory executives should consider the episode of the Palo Alto phlebotomist who reused needles as a timely warning. It does pay to prepare for both the unanticipated and unexpected…no matter how outlandish the situation. Our good friend, Mark Smythe, has an apt term for this management responsibility. He describes it as “crisis anticipation-disaster avoidance.”


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