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Swine Flu Tests Could Swamp Diagnostic Labs
Date:10/2/2009

Might lead to delays in tests for other diseases, experts say

FRIDAY, Oct. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Concerns about a swine flu outbreak this fall are spreading to the nation's diagnostic laboratories, which could see a big surge in their testing workload this fall.

According to several laboratory professionals affiliated with the American Society for Clinical Pathology, a large spike in swine flu screenings could clog a lab system already struggling with a shortage of workers. Such swine flu screenings, they said, could slow down testing for other diseases, potentially putting some patients at risk.

"There are now thousands of different tests that doctors can order," said Dr. Michael Laposata, chief of pathology at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville. "The whole issue of sheer workload and labor shortage is playing out in a big way with this H1N1 virus."

At Vanderbilt, a staff of roughly 300 lab technologists and other workers already has been processing an average of 150 to 200 flu tests -- for both swine and regular flu -- a day, most of them from the hospital's pediatric emergency room, Laposata said.

If there's a significant surge in H1N1 swine flu tests, overtime budgets could be stretched at many hospitals, especially small ones, he added.

"Automation in the lab has certainly helped us increase efficiency and accuracy, but a hospital lab is not a big machine," said Laposata, adding that testing could further be compromised if lab staffs fall ill during a swine flu epidemic. "What happens if these techs get sick? Instead of 300 people, we have 40 people. I'm in big trouble."

There are several tests for H1N1, the virus that causes swine flu. They range from rapid influenza diagnostic tests, which can detect influenza viral nucleoprotein antigen in as little as 30 minutes, to more sophisticated polymerase chain reaction assays. All require lab personnel to administer and revie
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