The practice of laboratory medicine is undergoing rapid change, both leading as well as reflecting changes in our healthcare system. These changes are driven by new technologies that now enable molecular and genomic testing, electronic data collection and integration, personalized and evidence-based medicine and the vertical and horizontal integration in all areas of healthcare. The laboratory is in the center of these massive changes, with clinical laboratory test results a key factor in 70 percent or more of all medical decisions.

The transformation of the clinical laboratory from a passive service role to an active role in patient diagnosis and management has encouraged non-physician laboratory professionals to become involved beyond the bench. Their expanding role in what has historically been recognized as the practice of medicine has created a conundrum: are non-physician professionals truly qualified to advise clinicians, interpret tests in clinical contexts and/or recommend testing for specific patients?

The question has been raised as to whether laboratory medicine, as practiced today, requires direct pathologist involvement in the selection and interpretation of test results integrated into specific clinical contexts on a routine basis.

Studies have shown the clinical and economic value of properly trained laboratory professionals who are truly expert in assisting attending physicians with test selection and interpretation. The lack of clinical involvement is associated with significant consequences. 15 – 54 percent of primary care medical errors are related to the testing process; 17 percent of healthcare spending in the U.S. is due to test overutilization; and nearly a third of total healthcare spending may be due to potentially avoidable clinical care.

Is consultation provided by medically-trained laboratory professionals, including pathologists and other physicians with laboratory training, more closely associated with improved clinical outcomes than consultation provided by non-medical laboratory professionals? In a recent study, researchers concluded that non-medical scientists “have also successfully undertaken leadership roles within laboratory medicine, including the directorships, thus precluding the absolute need for a medical degree in fulfilling most of the laboratory professional’s responsibilities.”

However, it is acknowledged that quality laboratory service is not just about providing accurate, useful and timely information to the attending physicians; it must be provided within the context of the particular patient’s circumstances. As a result, in many instances, without medical training and experience in the care of patients, non-physician clinical laboratory professionals generally do not have the contextual background to fully and optimally assist the clinician.

It is in this environment of interacting interests and forces that the laboratory and its professional personnel must redefine their roles, including who provides what types of consultation to attending physicians.

Originally published by ADVANCE for Administrators of the Laboratory, Lab Quality Advisor Blog.

About The Author

Irwin is Quality Advisor for COLA Resources, Inc (CRI®). where he provides a wide range of technical assistance to laboratories across the country. He previously held the position of Executive Director at Community Response, a community-based organization that provides HIV/AIDS support services in metropolitan Chicago. Prior to that position he was the Laboratory Manager of Crittenden Memorial Hospital, West Memphis, AR. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Brooklyn College, a Medical Technology degree from Good Samaritan School of Medical Technology, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Memphis.

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