From the top of your head to your toes, pathologist Dr. Al Masangkay says he can test it all and everything in-between at the Olympic Medical Center Laboratory.
His discoveries in tissue samples and other specimens could uncover a number of problems for patients along with solutions for a physician’s diagnosis for a quick recovery.
“Most people don’t know what pathology is,” Masangkay said.
“We’re behind the scenes, but there are 300,000 lab professionals in the U.S. and no one knows about it.”
Locally, the laboratory field has been growing. In the past few years, OMC’s lab has become the No. 1 place in the county for testing.
Lab director Steve Blackham said they’ve gone to great lengths to make it work.
“All physicians have confidence in us,” he said.
When Blackham started in 1999, they tested only 18 percent of samples for local doctors. Today, OMC hosts four draw stations, including Sequim Medical Plaza’s laboratory, and sees more than 85,000 patient accounts a year.
Blackham said 40-50 percent of all testing comes from Sequim.
Blackham said since he became lab director, his staff has re-engineered services to become more competitive with commercial labs in Western Washington.
“We weren’t even sending out reports via e-mail and still (were) using a courier,” he said. “We found the less paper you put on a doctor’s chart, the happier they are.”
Blackham said most patients’ charts are made up more of their lab testing than any patient would expect.
In 2011, the lab processed about 1,416,000 tests, and completed high-quality testing to support care provided by the medical center’s core outpatient services, the emergency room and inpatient care.
In December 2011, OMC launched Vitamin D testing, the No. 1 test it used to send out to other area laboratories, said Patty Wood, technical specialist of special chemistry. They were sending out 300-400 tests a month, Blackham said.
Bridging the vital link
Throughout the year, the lab is tested by the College of American Pathology program, which sends unknown samples quarterly for accurate testing and to maintain accreditation.
B.J. Kavanaugh, reference testing coordinator, said they take the testing very seriously and always make the grade.
Kavanaugh is in charge of sending out samples that OMC technicians aren’t able to test, such as genetics testing for chromosomal and autoimmune diseases.
Laverne Fryxell, medical technologist for the blood bank, said lab staff are a vital link to people’s wellness.
In the blood bank, 14 technicians work all hours making sure blood and platelets are compatible for transfusions.
“A mistake is fatal,” Fryxell said.
OMC receives blood shipments six days a week for support of cancer patients, traumas, surgeries, gastrointestinal bleeds and more. Nancy Christensen, blood bank technical specialist, said one patient with a trauma can wipe out a whole blood type’s stock in the bank. She stresses the importance of donating blood because one unit can save up to three lives.
Along with saving lives, the laboratory has created jobs. There are 71 employees, 66 full-time, in 2012 compared to 46 in 1999.
Blackham said they were doing fewer than half of the tests that they perform now.
Tests can go through the five departments: chemistry, hematology, microbiology, blood bank and pathology.
Chemistry sees 75 percent of lab results but much of the work is done through machines and staff must consistently watch them for maintenance.
Microbiology takes body fluids such as stool samples, blood and spinal fluid to determine if pathogenic organisms are growing inside a patient.
Hematology looks at the amount and structure of platelets and white and red blood cells and assesses if the results fall within the normal range.
Most public interaction with laboratory staff comes from one of the 32 lab assistants who work as phlebotomists, in registration, billing and specimen processing.
Gail Loerlein, lab customer service manager, said they see a registration error of less than 1 percent even though they have more than 100 outpatients a day.
For the forseeable future, Blackham said the lab’s plan is to protect market share and maintain services.
“We’re busy enough implementing electronic lab orders where a physician orders directly from their office,” he said. “There’s always new technology and tests becoming available.”
Olympic Medical Center Laboratory, 939 Caroline St., Port Angeles, is located inside Olympic Memorial Hospital.
National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week was the last full week of April this year.