Opening a fresh vein of information

BIG RAPIDS  — Blood and specimen samples are common ways for doctors to discover developing or existing problems in patients.

At Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital, more than 1.8 million tests are processed each year with state-of-the-art instrumentation and technology.

"Results of laboratory tests often identify the presence of disease in its earliest stages when the possibilities of a cure are greatest and when treatment is least costly," said SHBRH Laboratory Manager Linda Butterfield. "Our receptionists and phlebotomists have a reputation for delivering fast, friendly, personal service and our technical staff is comprised entirely of registered medical technologists."

Typically, more than 70 percent of the objective data used in the diagnosis and treatment of patients is derived from the laboratory and clinical laboratories’ expenses are generally 5 percent or less of the hospital’s total expense.

In honor of National Laboratory Week, which takes place from Sunday, April 20, through Saturday, April 26, members of the Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital laboratory are answering frequently asked questions from local patients.

Q: How many tests and/or specimens does the lab obtain and run in an average day?

A: The laboratory performs approximately 1,100 tests a day on 650 specimens collected from 360 patients.

Q: What educational qualifications are needed to work in the hospital laboratory?

A: Mid-Michigan and Baker Community Colleges offer phlebotomy courses which include an internship in a laboratory. Phlebotomists can also take a certification exam, however, it is not mandatory. Medical technologists have a four-year bachelor’s degree which includes an internship generally at a hospital-based laboratory. They also must take a national certification exam. Locally, Ferris State University offers the Clinical Lab Science program.

Q: Why do I have to fast for some lab tests and not others, and can I drink water and take my normal medications before I have my blood drawn?

A: Fasting is required for some lab tests to help your physician interpret your results. If you eat a large carbohydrate meal prior to the blood draw, your blood sugar will be high. This is normal. However, having a high blood sugar when you haven’t eaten isn’t normal. The most common fasting requirements are for tests that include a fasting blood sugar (eight-hour fast) and triglycerides (10 to 14-hour fast – triglycerides are included in a lipid panel). Water is allowed, and you should check with your physician to make sure it is acceptable for you to take your medications before having your blood drawn.

Q: Why do lab values vary from one hospital lab to another?

A: Test results vary from lab to lab based upon the method (or instrumentation) the lab uses to obtain results. All test results sent to your physician are reported along with a normal reference range which is based upon the method of testing used. So no matter what the result is, your physician will always have a reference range upon which to base his/her interpretation.

Q: What and why is there goop in the bottom of some tubes?

A: Depending on the lab test ordered, testing may be performed on the whole sample (whole blood) or on part of the sample (serum or plasma). This is the reason why some blood samples are collected in tubes containing gel at the bottom. The gel is a pure substance that acts as a barrier to effectively separate the serum (or plasma) from the cells when the tube is centrifuged (or spun) and prepared for testing.

Q: How much blood is actually in one of those little vials?

A: The average tube volume ranges from 2 to 7 milliliters. Five milliliters is equivalent to 1 teaspoon.

Q: Do you ever send patient specimens to an outside lab for testing or do you run everything in-house?

A: On average of the total reported results, approximately 2 percent are sent to other labs for testing.

Q: Can you mail my results to my home?

A: Yes, an “authorization for release of medical information from SHBRH” needs to be completed. This form can be completed at the Health Information window across the hallway from the SHBRH laboratory on the day your specimen is collected. When your results are completed, they will be mailed to you. Soon SHBRH will have a patient portal where patients can access their results from home or anywhere.

Q: How long will it take for my doctor to get the results?

A: If the tests are run at SHBRH lab, most results will be available the same day. Cultures take 48 to 72 hours. Tests that are not run at SHBRH lab can take anywhere from two to seven days before results are available.

Q: How does your lab manage biological waste products (needles and specimens)?

A: All regulated bio-hazardous waste is disposed of in accordance with local, state and federal regulations. Any object that can penetrate the skin is disposed of in sharps disposal boxes, and all regulated waste, other than sharps, is disposed of in red bag lined labeled biohazard waste containers. All are disposed of by a licensed medical waste hauler.