“I pass out when the doctor brings out the blood pressure cuff, so you can imagine what I do when they tell me I need to have blood drawn,” a friend of mine said recently. That sparked stories about body fluid tests that, frankly, we all found a bit amusing. I won’t bother you with the one about the stool specimen delivered to the hospital in a container marked dentures, but believe me it was hilarious.
Seriously, without the laboratory and the tests they perform, medical professionals wouldn’t have the ability to diagnose what’s wrong and more often what’s right with us.
We’re often told that we should know our blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure numbers and except for that cuff, those numbers are obtained through your blood. And, you know, diagnostic testing isn’t just about where your numbers are on the scale of normal. It’s more often about diagnosing diseases, rare and common and not only through your blood, urine and stool but also tissue, spinal fluid, saliva and even tears.
So, your primary care provider sends you to the lab for tests. You’ll meet the phlebotomist who’ll draw the blood sample and then what? What happens after that?
“There are a variety of skilled and educated laboratory professionals who, as a patient, you may never see face-to-face,” the American Association for Clinical Chemistry explains. “However, these individuals play a very important role in your health care. People working in the clinical laboratory are responsible for conducting tests that provide crucial information for detecting, diagnosing and treating, and monitoring disease.”
The lab at Bonner General Health is staffed round-the-clock, every day of the year. So, for instance, if you arrive at the emergency department in the middle of the night suffering with chest pains you can get the blood test vital to evaluating if it’s a heart attack, unstable angina or something else.
Think of the laboratory technologists and technicians as investigators, helping physicians put all the pieces of the crime of what’s happening to your body together to come up with the culprit.
“Your provider trusts the results coming from the laboratory and that trust is well-placed. Clinical laboratory testing is held to very high state and federal regulatory standards. All laboratory test methods must meet scientifically rigorous criteria before they can be used in clinical practice,” AACC says.
State and federal regulatory agencies set the standards and monitor laboratories, and thankfully, the lab must demonstrate that it’s able to perform in a way that meets those high standards. Doing that includes performing quality control tests every day, and in some cases several times a day.
“Quality control tests usually include normal and abnormal samples to ensure that the equipment, the technologist, and the reagents used in the test are performing to established standards,” they explain. Plus, labs must show that they have written policies and procedures in place to “specifically document how the sample is collected, transported, evaluated, and reported in an appropriate manner.”
These are the labs responsibilities, what about your responsibilities when your PCP orders lab work? In order for the results to be useful and interpreted correctly you need to follow instructions. You might be told to fast after a certain time, or to drink plenty of fluids or avoid eating particular foods, or not to exercise, have sex or pee for an hour before the test. It’s best to do what you’re told.
“Alert the person collecting your sample if you have deviated from the instructions and how,” AACC advises. “Inform the healthcare practitioner of any medications (including vitamins and supplements) you are taking.”
AACC says that many tests don’t require special preparation. “But, for those that do, be certain to adhere to the instructions provided. If you are ever unclear about the instructions, be sure to ask the person ordering the test for clarification.”
By the way, next week is National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week. Let’s salute the men and women who tirelessly and competently work behind the scenes accurately analyzing the substances we’d probably rather not give them!
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.