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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Supply Chain Shortages Threaten Medical Imaging Testing While Clinical Laboratories Face Scarcity of Blood Collection Specimen Tubes

From infant formula to contrast dye for CT scans, ongoing healthcare product shortages highlight continuing US supply chain and manufacturing issues

Medical laboratory directors and pathologists have firsthand knowledge of COVID-19 pandemic-driven supply chain issues, having faced backlogs for everything from pipettes and transport media to personal protective equipment (PPE). But the latest shortage impacting blood collection tubes is another example of why it is important to manufacture key products—including clinical laboratory tests, analyzers, and consumables—domestically.

On January 19, 2022, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Letter to Healthcare Providers and Laboratory Personnel recommending “conservation strategies” to minimize blood collection tube use because of  “significant disruptions” in supplies due to COVID-19-increased demand and “recent vendor supply challenges.”

“The FDA updated the device shortage list to include all blood specimen collection tubes (product codes GIM and JKA),” the letter noted.

This announcement followed a similar June 10, 2021, Letter to Healthcare Providers and Laboratory Personnel that stated the FDA was aware “that the US is experiencing significant interruptions in the supply of sodium citrate blood specimen collection (light blue top) tubes because of an increase in demand during the COVID-19 public health emergency and recent vendor supply challenges.”

A spokesperson for Becton-Dickinson (BD), a manufacturer of blood specimen collection products, told Forbes that the COVID-19 pandemic caused “the most unpredictable demand that BD has experienced in our company’s history.” The spokesperson added, “Worldwide, BD produced nearly a half a billion additional blood tubes in 2021 versus 2020 … Like every business across every industry around the world, BD is experiencing limited availability of and access to raw materials, shipping and transportation delays, and labor shortages, which hinders our ability to ramp production.”

Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science, explained that the supply-chain problem includes many routine items, such as Phosphate-buffered saline, and cannot be solved by stockpiling certain supplies.

“It’s also a challenge because we’ve moved to just-in-time (JIT) inventory across all sectors, including labs … They outdate just like food [and] are no longer fresh. [The product] is no longer reliable and you can’t use it. So, we can’t stockpile either,” Nielsen told Forbes.

Shortages Hit Other Critical Healthcare Sectors

But shortages of supplies and equipment have spread beyond the clinical laboratory. Intravenous contrast—which contains iodine and is used to improve the accuracy of CT scans and exclude life-threatening conditions such as cancer—has been in short supply since GE Healthcare shut down its manufacturing facility in Shanghai, China, during the city’s two-month pandemic lockdown that began in early April.

“I can’t overstate the importance of iodinated contrast for really critical diagnostic tests,” said radiologist Geoffrey Rubin, MD, a specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary imaging, and professor and Chair of Radiology at University of Arizona, Tucson, in a Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) news release covering the contrast shortage.

“This isn’t an ancillary tool. This is something that’s used many, many times every day for both lifesaving decisions in the setting of trauma and for managing cancer patients and determining the appropriate care for them,” he added.

Rosa DeLauro, US Representative
 US Rep. Rosa DeLauro (above), lamented the fact these vital products are not being made in sufficient quantities in the US. “In the wealthiest nation on Earth, there should be no reason doctors are forced to ration lifesaving medical scans to compensate for a shortage of material,” DeLauro told The New York Times. “We are seeing supply chains break down because of consolidated industries experiencing manufacturing shortages and offshoring American jobs to China.” Clinical laboratory managers have first-hand knowledge of the severity of supply shortages. (Photo copyright: CNN.)

GE Healthcare is one of four companies that supply iodine-containing contrast to the United States, but the other three manufacturers have been unable to scale-up and offset the shortage.

By June 14, 2022, the Shanghai facility had returned to 100% production capacity following the easing of local COVID restrictions, according to a GE Healthcare statement. But shortages remain.

“There is still the challenge of bringing the contrast media across the ocean and distributing it to healthcare facilities across the nation,” Nancy Foster, the American Hospital Association’s (AHA) Vice President of Quality and Patient Safety Policy, told CNN.

“The hospital association estimates that about half of all hospitals in the United States rely on GE for contrast dye to perform about 20 million scans a year, or about 385,000 scans each week,” CNN reported.

Critical Medical Products Must be Manufactured Domestically

Oncologist Shikha Jain, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois Cancer Center in Chicago, told CNN that contrast shortages are “not an isolated incident.”

“We’ve been having shortages throughout the pandemic. At the very beginning of the pandemic, it was PPE shortages,” Jain said. “Now, we have contrast shortages and formula shortages for babies.”

The infant formula crisis is the other headline grabbing news in recent weeks. Three companies—Abbott, Reckitt, and Gerber—manufacture 95% of the baby formula sold in the US, with Abbott controlling roughly 42% of the nation’s supply, CNN reported.

“Initially, this problem affected those who are on more specialized formulas or had nutritional issues,” Stephanie Seger, Director of Government Relations at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., told CNN. ‘Then the gap, or the emptiness on the shelves, increased to the point where it’s now any formula. It’s now any parent of any baby.”

The Biden administration took steps in May to increase the supply of imported formula, but like the Intravenous contrast shortage, the problem has not been solved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to underscore the serious issues affecting supply chains for hospital, medical laboratory, and other critical supplies. While no quick fix has appeared on the horizon, the clinical laboratory industry should take steps now to work toward long-term solutions.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

GE Healthcare Update on Iodinated Contrast Media

Update: Blood Specimen Collection Tube Conservation Strategies—Letter to Health Care and Laboratory Personnel

Blood Specimen Collection Tube Shortage: Frequently Asked Questions

Patients Face Long Delays for Imaging of Cancers and Other Diseases

Memorandum: Hearing on ‘Formula Safety and Supply: Protecting the Health of America’s Babies’

President Biden Announces Additional Steps to Address Infant Formula Shortage

Despite Moves to Increase Supply, Families Are Still Feeling the Pain of the Baby Formula Shortage

Blood Collection Tube Shortages Continue, ‘Routine’ Labs Should Be Limited

Hospitals Grapple with Shortage of Crucial Component for Medical Imaging Testing

Iodinated Contrast Shortage Challenges Radiologists

NIH Funds Nine Anti-Microbial Resistance Diagnostic Projects to Deal with ‘Super Bugs’ and Give Clinical Laboratories New Diagnostic Tools to Improve Patient Care

Lab-on-a-chip technology could reduce the time needed to identify infection-causing bacteria and for physicians to prescribe correct antibiotics 

Pathology groups and medical laboratories may see their role in the patient-care process grow if researchers succeed in developing culture-independent diagnostic tools that quickly identify bacterial infections as well as pinpoint the antibiotics needed to treat them.

In the battle against antibiotic-resistant infections (AKA “super bugs”) the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding nine research projects aimed at thwarting the growing problem of life-threatening infections that no longer are controlled or killed by today’s arsenal of drugs.

Common Practices in Hospitals Leading to Super Bugs

Currently, when infections are suspected in hospitals or other settings where illness can quickly spread, samples are sent to a central medical laboratory where it may take up to three days to determine what germ is causing the infection. Because of that delay, physicians often prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics based on a patient’s symptoms rather than lab test results, a practice that can lead to the growth of antibiotic-resistant microbes. (more…)

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL): Quality Costs Money

Wall Street has yet to grasp this essential truth of laboratory medicine-lab test quality comes with its own price tag

At this moment in time, Quest Diagnostics Incorporated‘s  (NYSE:DGX) advertised value proposition to other labs—”industry-leading quality and technical proficiency”—has diminished credibility with pathologists and lab industry executives. They are questioning how the nation’s largest lab company could allow systemic errors that caused it to report inaccurate Vitamin 25(OH) D test results to tens of thousands of patients for 18 months during 2007 and 2008.

These same pathologists represent an important source of reference and esoteric testing referrals to the nation’s largest lab company. Thus, the disclosure of systemic failures in its Vitamin D testing program may have implications for Quest Diagnostics over the long term. Many health systems, hospitals, and laboratories across the United States refer reference and esoteric tests to Quest Diagnostics. Quality and test result integrity are a primary buying motive for the pathologists and lab directors in these organizations. As scientists, they want confidence in the analytical integrity of the test results they provide to their own clinicians.

Two national reference laboratories with solid reputations for quality and lab test result integrity are ARUP Laboratories and Mayo Medical Laboratories. These reputations for quality and integrity are key assets at ARUP and Mayo. Both firms compete successfully against the two blood brothers because many referring laboratories believe the scientific integrity at ARUP and Mayo is not compromised in ways that may occur in publicly-traded lab companies. Of interest, both these laboratories earn adequate profit margins while competing effectively on price, service, and quality against the national lab companies.

Quest Diagnostics now finds itself facing a tough challenge in the reference/esoteric testing marketplace. Among its peers in the scientific and laboratory medicine communities, the quality and integrity of its lab test results will be seriously questioned. And because pathologists have long memories, this can be an issue for years into the future.

That has been the experience of Specialty Laboratories, Inc. During the 1990s, this was a go-go reference and esoteric testing laboratory. Fast-growing, it had a reputation for first-rank science and regularly introduced new proprietary assays to the medical community. But, in April, 2002, federal and state laboratory regulators yanked Specialty’s license to do business with Medicare. The story centered around internal whistleblowers and regulatory directives that were not fully addressed by Specialty’s executive team. There were questions about the integrity of test results for some lines of lab tests performed at Specialty. (“State, Federal Regulators Target Specialty Labs,” The Dark Report, April 22, 2002.)

Within a few months, Specialty Labs was able to reclaim its Medicare license after fixing deficiencies and passing its inspections. However, loss of its Medicare license was a body blow to Specialty Laboratories. Across the nation, pathologists and laboratory directors stopped sending specimens to Specialty Labs. Overnight, the company experienced a precipitous decline in specimen volume and revenue. Facing grim financial prospects, in January 2006 it was sold to AmeriPath. Ironically, Quest Diagnostics found itself the owner of Specialty Laboratories when it acquired AmeriPath last year.

The example of Specialty Labs illustrates why quality, integrity, and trust matter-a great deal! Pathologists and lab directors face personal liability if their laboratory delivers inaccurate results to patients and physicians. Their personal reputations ride on the performance of their laboratory. As physicians, they understand the consequences to patient care when a laboratory fails to report accurate test results. Their own laboratory must maintain its reputation for integrity and quality if it is to retain the trust of the clinicians and patients it serves.

Further, these same pathologists and lab directors regularly interview and hire scientists and medical technologists from both of the national laboratory companies. They hear lots of stories about the internal operations of these two billion-dollar lab companies. There are few secrets about events that unfold inside the two blood brothers. For example, lab scientists directing Vitamin D testing at their own labs quickly recognized, early in 2007, that Quest Diagnostics was struggling with its home brew mass spectrometry Vitamin D assay.

The lab community has watched both national labs continually cut costs over the past ten years. Competing labs conduct hiring interviews with the wave after wave of terminated employees hunting for jobs after each RIF (reduction in force) trims back staff to save money. Pathologists and lab directors understand the consequences of sustained cost cutting. Eventually, a laboratory’s cost cutting reaches a point where the resources, staff time, and operational capability required to sustain a high level of analytical accuracy and integrity can be compromised.

That is why many laboratory professionals are asking if the inaccurate Vitamin 25(OH) D results performed over an 18-month period on tens of thousands of patients is a sign that should not be ignored. Has Quest Diagnostics reached the threshold where further cost-cutting to satisfy Wall Street will undermine the quality and integrity of its lab test results?

Of all the customers of the two national laboratories, pathologists are the best informed about how constant budget reductions can undermine the quality and integrity of laboratory test results. They know that lab test quality is an expensive proposition.

Thus, no one should be surprised if, going forward, both national laboratories find it more difficult to expand the reference and esoteric business which comes to them from other laboratories across the nation. Should either firm experience even modest declines in the year-over-growth in this business segment, it will be a significant sign. Questions associated with test integrity may be motivating an important source of reference and esoteric testing to steer their specimens to other laboratory providers.

Should this happen, no one should be surprised. If a decade of sustained cost-cutting has finally reached the point where laboratory customers question the quality of the test results produced by major lab companies, it will only be the market imposing its discipline. The market will be reminding Wall Street investors that spending to sustain quality protects market share and profits. After all, as the libertarians say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL)”!

Related Information: