Clinical Laboratory Accuracy and Quality Is under Increased Scrutiny as Precision Medicine Puts Diagnostics in the Spotlight
As the public gains awareness of the role clinical laboratories play in modern healthcare, increased engagement and understanding of the technology underlying many of these advances could create risk for labs without transparent reporting protocols to both patients and the public
In recent years, consumers have continually raised the bar in their expectation of quality when they interact with the healthcare system. Not only do patients expect providers—including clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups—to improve regularly over time, but the public has even less tolerance for medical errors of any type. Thus, a recent NPR story is one more warning to the medical laboratory profession that it should be devoting resources and effort to improving quality.
Today’s healthcare consumers and patients are more educated about and involved in the care process than ever before. While the exact science and skills may not interest the general public, the technologies underpinning much of the shift toward personalized medicine (AKA, precision medicine) are the same technologies that created the always-connected, digital lifestyles seen around the world.
With this, comes a level of scrutiny and questioning from the public that clinical laboratories or anatomic pathology groups would not have experienced even just a decade ago.
Mounting Scrutiny of Medical Laboratories and Healthcare Professionals
A recent segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” highlighted this trend and questioned the quality control standards behind many of the procedures powering current testing. The segment also questioned the impact quality control has on the quality of biobanks used to research and create future technologies and tests.
Pathologist Richard Friedberg, PhD, Medical Director of Baystate Reference Laboratories and former president of the College of American Pathologists, told NPR, “We need to be sure that the stuff [doctors and researchers are] looking at is valid, accurate, reliable, and reproducible … If it’s garbage in, it’s garbage out.”
The story highlights improved standards and guidelines surrounding immunohistochemical (IHC) HER2 tests in the early 2000s. In 2007, The New York Times questioned the reliability of the tests, based on studies presented to the American Society of Clinical Oncology the week prior.
In response, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the College of American Pathologists released guideline recommendations outlining the exact standards required to reduce assay variation and ensure that data produced is accurate and reproducible. NPR’s coverage claims this is the only test with such strict guidelines.
“I don’t think physicians think this way about their entire medical system,” Carolyn Compton, PhD, CMO of the National Biomarker Development Alliance, CMO of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative, and professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, told NPR. “I don’t see how we’re going to get precision medicine at the end of the day when everything under the hood is so imprecise.”
When data and previous research powers much of the innovation taking place across the modern healthcare landscape, the accuracy of said data would seem critical. Yet, without standards in place, there’s not always safeties by which to verify sample integrity and other critical concerns.
Late last year, Dark Daily reported on a study published in PLOS ONE from Radboud University in the Netherlands questioning the accuracy of more than 30,000 published scientific studies that contained misidentified or contaminated cell lines. Guidelines, such as those created for IHR and FISH HER2 testing, provide standards intended to prevent such issues from occurring or detecting them when they do occur.
Quality versus Quantity: A Gamble Worth Taking?
Apart from challenges with healthcare reform and the regulatory landscape surrounding precision medicine, medical laboratories also must struggle with the challenges of gleaning and maintaining useful, accurate information from an ever-growing trove of data produced by analyzers and assays.
Yet, these mediocre datasets include the results of tests that carried a potentially significant impact on patient lives. In the first two weeks of February alone, both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Telegraph published stories related to erroneous testing related to cancer and the potential impact on the clinical laboratories involved and the patients tested.
Increased coverage shows that the world is watching what goes on in medical laboratories, hospitals, and data centers as healthcare continues to evolve. Clinical laboratories must move forward with this in mind or risk pushback and questioning from the public. Transparency regarding standards, and reporting information to patients surrounding testing or concerns, might effectively address this rising trend.
“We are moving faster and faster and faster as this whole precision medicine train is moving down the track,” Tim Allen, MD, Laboratory Director at the University of Texas Medical Branch Department of Laboratory Services, told NPR. “I suspect standardization of these things is going to become a reality much quicker than I would have expected even a few years ago.”
That quality control issues in anatomic pathology are considered newsworthy by no less than NPR is a sign of increased public attention to the quality of lab testing. The story was written to educate the public about the gap that exists in the quality control of anatomic pathology testing. All of this is consistent with the trend for providers to be transparent and report their quality metrics to the public, including patients.