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Southeast Georgia Health System Brunswick Campus Laboratory Services team.

Many heroes have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontline health care workers have commanded much praise, but other heroes have gone relatively unnoticed. Working behind the scenes 24/7, 365 days a year, Southeast Georgia Health System’s Laboratory Services team provides an essential, life-saving service.

“We’re involved in the care of almost every hospital patient,” says Patrick Godbey, M.D., FCAP, laboratory director and Chief, Department of Pathology, on the Health System’s Brunswick Campus. “The vast majority of medical decisions and diagnoses are made in our lab. We also play a major role in determining treatments and prognoses. At times, pathologists and laboratorians are the most important part of your health care team that you never see.”

Godbey also serves as the current president of the College of American Pathologists (CAP), the world’s largest association composed exclusively of board-certified pathologists and the worldwide leader in laboratory quality assurance.

As director of Laboratory Services, Brendon Winstead, MBA, MT(ASCP), FACHE, agrees. “It is estimated that the majority of the decisions made regarding a patient’s diagnosis are based on laboratory results.”

Laboratory Services houses three sections. The core lab processes tests that physicians order after a routine physical exam or pre- and post-surgery. The blood bank identifies a patient’s blood type and dispenses blood and blood products for transfusions. The microbiology lab tests for viral and bacterial infections, from a common strep throat to complex illnesses such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and most recently, the coronavirus.

Coping with COVID-19

Jane Spence, MPA, BSMT, MT(ASCP) is team coordinator for the microbiology lab. “As soon as we learned of COVID, we moved all virus tests into an isolation room and implemented additional personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition to COVID, testing for other respiratory diseases also skyrocketed. Physicians were trying to rule out other infections while screening for COVID.”

According to Spence, not all COVID-19 tests are created equal. “The media shows testing as easy and readily available. Many tests produce quick answers, but the results may not be reliable. We search for the best, most accurate and reliable tests. Preparations, validations and training are completed before Dr. Godbey approves the test. Only then, can we use the test in-house.”

Touching and Saving Lives

The role labs play in coronavirus testing has become more evident in recent months, an effort Godbey has called “heroic.” Clinical laboratory scientists aren’t only saving lives, they’re helping governments protect public health, which guides efforts to combat COVID-19.

COVID-19 is the concern of the day, but laboratorians touch many lives every day. “If a patient needs blood, it comes from our blood bank. Many breast cancer treatments are decided in the lab,” Godbey says.

Make or Break Data

Whether testing for a urinary tract infection (UTI) or a complex illness, laboratorians focus on accuracy while working under rapid turnarounds. “We have a phenomenal team. That’s good, because bad data is worse than no data at all,” explains Godbey. “For example, what if a patient’s HIV test was reported as negative but they were actually positive? What if a biopsy result was incorrect, the patient gets the ‘all-clear’ and their cancer metastasizes?”

As Spence says, “Testing in microbiology involves identification of bacteria and viruses and can take anywhere from 10 minutes to eight weeks for a result. We have to keep detailed records and there is a lot of thinking and problem solving throughout the process.”

Data quality that determines life-changing medical decisions is why Godbey says the lab is “the most regulated square footage in the hospital.”

Time-sensitive accuracy was an immense concern with COVID-19 tests. Initially, COVID testing was only available through the State lab or commercial reference laboratories, and results could take up to 10 days. “We were able to provide rapid test results within one hour in April when we began testing in-house but there is limited availability because reagents, the testing chemicals, were being sent to viral hotspots. As a result, rapid in-house testing is primarily used for critically ill patients,” Winstead says.

Spence is seeing a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. “We’re now performing additional high capacity testing onsite and ramping up to be able to provide results within four hours seven days per week.”

In Pace with the Future

Their jobs are challenging, but technology enhances the staff’s efficiency. “In the last five to 10 years, technology advances have allowed us to perform many tests at the Health System that we once sent to outside labs,” Winstead says.

Education has kept pace, too. Depending on their duties, laboratorians are required to have a two- or four-year degree. “It’s a combination of book learning and hands-on experience. Students from Georgia Southern University spend five months training here before taking the national certification test,” Winstead explains.

Through good times and bad, the laboratory team presses on. When COVID-19 emerged, “Our staff has worked long hours for weeks and continues to step up with a smile on their faces,” Winstead says. Reflecting on his department’s ongoing contribution to the hospital and the community, Godbey says, “The lab is irreplaceable.”

Individuals with questions about COVID-19 symptoms should call the Health System’s free screening hotline at 912-466-7222.

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