“We’ll see what we can do…”

You might be familiar with the following phone calls to the microbiology laboratory:

  • “I know you only have 0.1ml of CSF left at the lab. Can you still do a viral CSF panel for me?”
  • “Although (I swear) the blood culture was from Mr X, the bottles were accidentally labelled as Mrs Y. Can you still process it?”
  • “The patient is currently on erythromycin for a chest infection. Please can you test the E. coli in the patient’s urine against this antibiotic?”
  • “Regarding that stool sample that we sent to the laboratory five days ago. Can we now check it for C. difficile toxin?”
  • “My patient has a mixed growth in her urine. Can you check to see if everything that you have grown is susceptible to augmentin?”
  • “Sorry I sent the B. pertussis PCR swab in the wrong transport media. Would you process it nevertheless?”

We’ll see what we can do….

We often get requests to do something in the laboratory which is either simply inappropriate or has a good chance of producing a sub-optimal result. This might be because of inadequate sample volume, transport delays, labelling errors, wrong sample type, etc. etc.  Because we want to be nice, because we want to keep everybody happy, we often pander to such requests. However by doing so we compromise the quality standards in the laboratory, with potential harm to that all important end user, the patient.

And we also set a precedent for further such requests…

The staff working in the microbiology laboratory are the key gatekeepers of a high quality service. If a sample or test is unacceptable for whatever reason, they should have the authority to reject/refuse it, and this authority should be backed up to the hilt by lab managers and pathologists.

It is only by doing this consistently that high quality standards become the norm within the department. And what’s more, laboratory users soon learn that future requests of a similar nature will be futile. With time, laboratory users will increasingly understand why you take this approach.

So instead of saying “We’ll see what we can do,” we should be replying “Sorry we are unable to do this.” to such requests.

Occasionally this might provoke a grumble or even a complaint. I have had my fair share!, but trust me, such complaints are completely ungrounded and never go very far. If you don’t receive the odd “complaint” from time to time, you probably aren’t doing your job properly.

When it comes to test quality, ensure your microbiology laboratory is both strict and consistent in its messages, and the respect will come…

Michael

 

“Susceptibility to Influenza”

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere you may have found that your laboratory was swamped by incoming influenza tests this season?

You would not be alone.

Influenza is an unpredictable beast. In my own neck of the woods, New Zealand, the 2015 season was busier than usual, the 2016 season was almost non-existent, and the 2017 season was very average.

Nobody knows what will happen with influenza during 2018.. (Note that as NZ is in the Southern Hemisphere, our winter is June, July , August, right in the middle of the year).

Often you will see Influenza “experts” on TV making predictions about how severe the forthcoming influenza season will be. However such predictions come with huge pinches of salt. You might well be better off predicting the stock market…

The truth is that we don’t really know how bad the forthcoming influenza season is going to be, whether you are an expert or just an interested bystander.

And as a result we have no idea how much each influenza season is going to cost a diagnostic laboratory that performs influenza testing.

Let’s say a bog standard Influenza/RSV PCR costs approximately $30. In a quiet season 1000 tests might get performed in a medium sized hospital. However in a busy season 5000 tests might be required, with an excess cost of $120000. This would of course cause the laboratory manager some sleepless nights!

I am glad I am not a laboratory manager..

And then there might be an influenza pandemic…

The same goes for Public Health Laboratories. The numbers of samples coming in for antigenic sub-typing will be closely related to the severity of the influenza season.

Contracts that laboratory providers have with healthcare funders need to take this unpredictability into account. Some sort of clause like “The diagnostic laboratory will perform up to X Influenza PCRs during the Influenza season. If this number is exceeded, further funding will be negotiated”. Unfortunately this is often not the case. Often laboratory providers will be so desperate to get the contract signed and sealed that they will accept these risks, and manage such problems reactively.

From a financial point of view, microbiology laboratories are very susceptible to influenza test volumes, just like they are susceptible to emerging diseases and MDROs, cohorts where “unexpected testing” may need to take place.

There will of course be some laboratories who are reimbursed per test performed (fee for service). Those places of course would be hoping for a pandemic every year!, but such laboratories/funding arrangements are getting less and less common. The funders are not daft!

I hope for a quiet influenza season this year, and that is nothing to do with my personal risk! (I look forward to receiving the quadrivalent vaccine in the next couple of months).

Michael

“Use and Abuse”

You can produce sophisticated and comprehensive antimicrobial resistance surveillance data.

You can adhere to the best infection control policies in the country.

You can have a “search and destroy” policy for multi-resistant organisms.

and you can even develop and bring out a new antibiotic every couple of years….

But unless you control antibiotic consumption (usage), you will always be fighting an uphill battle.

In order to control antibiotic consumption you need to know how  many antibiotics are being used in the first place.

One of the problems is that antimicrobial resistance surveillance data is produced by microbiologists. Antibiotic consumption data is produced by pharmacists. Antibiotic consumption data even in this day and age can still be difficult to get hold of. Sometimes I wonder if the companies selling the antibiotics to the hospitals have a much better handle on consumption data than the microbiologists do!

Microbiologists and pharmacists need to talk to each other more. It is such a key relationship in the antimicrobial stewardship world.

Antibiotic usage needs to be surveyed and controlled not only at an individual level, but at a national level. Communities and hospitals, humans and animals. It all adds up… Too often I have sat in conferences and seen pretty graphs of antimicrobial resistance data, without complementary antibiotic consumption data to put the resistance data into context. I find it all a bit frustrating…

If reducing antibiotic usage was easy it would already have happened. It’s not easy , and there are good reasons for this. (See this article). This is where objective data is key to monitoring and measuring change. Feedback to the “prescriber” is critical.

Every antimicrobial stewardship committee in the world needs to be aware of their consumption data. Otherwise they are simply not doing their job. Surveillance of antibiotic consumption does not seem to get the same profile as resistance data. This is a shame. I would actually argue that it is the more important of the two….

Michael