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Outside the Lab Profession

Collaboration Through Communication

“Houston, we have a problem.”

You will likely recognize this iconic quote from the movie Apollo 13 – you may have even used it yourself. Although fictional, it is a paraphrase of the radio transmission from real-life Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert to the NASA Mission Control Center to communicate the crew’s discovery of the explosion that hobbled their spacecraft, forcing them to return to Earth. In his memoir chronicling the near disaster, James A. Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, wrote, “… I would be remiss not to state that it really was the teamwork between the ground and flight crew that resulted in a successful return.”

Much has been written about the critical importance of teamwork in high-stakes fields such as aeronautics, the military… and, of course, healthcare. Studies have shown that in today’s increasingly complex healthcare environment, collaboration is vital to the delivery of quality patient care, and that effective communication – the key to any successful collaboration – builds morale, fosters teamwork, and reduces the risk of errors.

What does this mean for pathologists? Twenty-first-century medical practice demands that we possess the necessary communication skills to function as integral members of healthcare teams. First and foremost, we must acquire the ability to communicate effectively to different audiences – and though there is no single right way of doing this, there are tools that go a long way toward helping.

Twenty-first-century medical practice demands that we possess the necessary communication skills to function as integral members of healthcare teams.

In the Montefiore Einstein Department of Pathology, for instance, we’ve made communication training for our residents a priority, fostering effective intradepartmental communication a must, and communicating with our colleagues and customers an absolute requirement.  One practical tool we’ve devised to aid “getting the word out” to our colleagues is a newsletter we call Lab Notes.

Lab Notes was launched more than 20 years ago as a quarterly print publication. Its original purpose was to feature full-length articles by senior faculty members to keep our clinical lab staff and primary care physicians abreast of new testing procedures and laboratory techniques. But there were issues with putting out a regular print publication. Though the content and design were excellent, production was both time-consuming and expensive, and the distribution pipeline through inter-office and U.S. mail was less than optimal; a significant percentage of the newsletters never reached their recipients! Ultimately, deemed too labor-intensive and costly and falling short of its intended impact, the print version of Lab Notes was put to sleep.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. In recent years, the rise of digital technology, coupled with our drive to deliver important information in a succinct and timely manner, spurred the reawakening of our newsletter via email. Members of our clinical laboratory team – professional directors, technical staff and customer service specialists – identify and share new diagnostic information and offer practical advice to help customers avoid problems accessing pathology services. We now communicate focused, timely stories to more than 1,500 healthcare professionals – frequently, and in an efficient, streamlined, cost-effective format.

Lab Notes does look a little different today. In contrast to its printed predecessor, which covered several topics per issue, each edition of the e-newsletter is dedicated to a single subject. Some recent examples include how to use the laboratory information system to order a specific diagnostic test; an upcoming change to a testing procedure; a time-saving new assay. Sometimes, the content speaks to a specific audience; at other times, it impacts diverse professionals across our integrated healthcare system – so we make sure it’s accessible to everyone.

We’re excited to show our service users the faces behind the test results!

In addition, Lab Notes shines a spotlight on the intradepartmental teamwork we use to solve clinical problems. It serves as a megaphone to tout our accomplishments and recognize individual staff members and laboratory teams for their good work. It’s an easy way to raise morale and engender – in everyone from lab techs to pathologists – a shared sense of pride in knowing they’re contributing to an enterprise that’s making an important difference in patients’ lives. And this notion has been confirmed by the appreciative comments we receive.

Thanks to technology, we’re improving our newsletter all the time. We’re able to track the open rate for each issue (see Table 1), who opened the email, and who clicked on the embedded links (if any) to find out more information. We also have the ability to solicit readers’ questions and feedback. The customer service phone number for our department is included, along with a message encouraging readers to call if they have questions about the featured content. In the near future, we also plan to produce and embed instructional video clips featuring our lab techs and clinical pathologists, literally placing them in the spotlight. We’re excited to show our service users the faces behind the test results!

Table 1. A selection of recent Lab Notes newsletters and their open rates.
Topic Link Open rate (%)
Beyond Ebola: preparing for infectious diseases http://bit.ly/2lBW22g 22.3
How to use the pathology test compendium in Epic http://bit.ly/2DPtzg1 15.9
Changes in urinalysis test procedures and reporting http://bit.ly/2ExC5kS 13.5
PD-L1 testing at Montefiore http://bit.ly/2CtFcfy 12.3
Avoiding preanalytical errors in coagulation testing http://bit.ly/2qczJoC 11.5
The microbiology lab’s role in C. difficile prevention and control http://bit.ly/2CqC592 10.6
Flu season: choosing the right viral test for patients http://bit.ly/2EAN4dA 10.2
We’re not only helping our staff hone their communication skills, we’re also helping our clinical partners become adept users of the essential services we provide.

Ultimately, the newsletter conveys a clear message to our customers: “Your patients are in good hands with our highly skilled and dedicated professionals.” Through Lab Notes, we’re not only helping our staff hone their communication skills, we’re also helping our clinical partners become adept users of the essential services we provide. Together, we work 24/7 to advance our shared mission: the delivery of excellent patient care. That’s our target destination, and this 21st-century communication vehicle helps get us there.

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About the Author
Michael Prystowsky

Michael Prystowsky is the Professor and University Chair of the Department of Pathology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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