April 23, 2008 > Doctors Depend on Accurate Results to Diagnose and Treat Disease
Doctors Depend on Accurate Results to Diagnose and Treat Disease
Medical Laboratory Professionals Week Highlights Critical Role
If you've ever had your blood drawn or been asked by your doctor to give a urine sample, chances are you've had a laboratory test. Physicians and other healthcare providers depend on laboratory tests to prevent, diagnose and treat disease.
Laboratory professionals deliver today's results for a healthier tomorrow. That's the theme of this year's Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, held April 20 through April 26, which highlights lab professionals' critical role.
"We work behind the scenes to save lives," said Mary Reynolds, director of Laboratory Services at Washington Hospital. "We're the people who do the testing to enable doctors to make an accurate diagnosis."
More than 85 lab professionals work at Washington Hospital, with about 62 of those being full-time employees, including phlebotomists (technicians who draw blood), scientists and pathologists. The lab is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week because you never know when a lab test will be needed.
"Pathologists have advanced medical degrees and serve as clinical consultants to physicians, advising them on laboratory testing," Reynolds said. "Also, it's the pathologist who diagnoses disease in surgical specimens, bone marrow and tumors."
A laboratory test is defined as a medical procedure in which a sample of blood, urine, or other bodily fluid or tissue is checked for certain parameters. These tests can be used to determine the cause of symptoms or as part of a routine physical before any symptoms occur to prevent or stop the progression of disease. In addition, lab tests can be used to help determine a specific treatment plan or evaluate the body's response to a treatment.
Every day at Washington Hospital, physicians depend on lab professionals to perform tests, interpret the results, and help provide a complete picture of a patient's health. Using modern biomedical equipment and complicated analysis, lab scientists and pathologists can detect the presence of cancer, identify infectious viruses and bacteria, and measure glucose or sugar, cholesterol, and drug levels in blood, among other important testing capabilities.
Reliable Test Results
Washington Hospital uses an automated barcode system to ensure patients' lab results are never mixed up. Each sample receives a label with a barcode that contains the patient's information.
Laboratory tests are generally analyzed to determine whether the results fall into normal ranges. What is normal for one person may be different for another. So instead of a specific number, normal results are usually given as a range.
Some laboratory results are precise, reliable indicators of specific health conditions. Others provide more general information that give doctors clues to possible health problems. Sometimes lab results only indicate more tests are needed. Based on the results, doctors can determine what other tests or procedures are needed to make an accurate diagnosis.
For example, when lab scientists test joint fluid to determine why a patient has pain in their joint, they are looking for certain clues, according to Reynolds. Cellular components and bacteria can indicate when there is an infection.
"We also look under the microscope for the formation of crystals, which can cause pain," she said. "That's another indication of the diagnosis. There are other tests that can be performed to determine if the patient has arthritis."
Much has changed in hospital laboratories since Reynolds started in the field 30 years ago. Better technology, including the use of computers in the lab, has improved the accuracy and reliability of test results.
"Looking at cells and cell structure through the microscope is the same, but everything else has changed," she said. "As technology evolves, it gives us better tools to work with and it keeps the job interesting."
She encourages people with good analytical skills to consider a career in laboratory medicine.
"There is some stress and pressure because we have to get it right every time. We have to be fast, accurate and work efficiently as a team," she added. "But it's very rewarding knowing you are helping patients."
For information about Washington Hospital programs and services, visit www.whhs.com.