Taking Laboratory Services for granted may have been easy in the past, but that all changed last year. Since the pandemic, gratitude for people like Cindy Johnson and her Lab Services colleagues prevails across all 38 counties they serve.
In her role as senior director of CentraCare Laboratory Services and in her capacity as immediate past president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, Johnson helps educate elected officials and other national policymakers about how lab testing fits into the grand scheme of healthcare in America. It’s an objective with newfound significance in the age of COVID-19.
When COVID-19 hit, it became clear early on that a strategy had to be developed that would optimize the power of Laboratory Services across CentraCare to help people survive the pandemic. Johnson knew her team would be put to the test. Already vital, Lab Services’ role was suddenly amplified. Johnson and her staff found themselves on the leading edge of a national public-health crisis.
“Dr. Mark Matthias, Physician VP, Acute Care, led a clinical pathways meeting on COVID-19 with various clinical decisions made early on,” she recalls. “It was laboratory tests, which continue to be a focus. But it was also bringing us together with all of the specialties, with our pathologists and providers, infectious disease experts and others. The clinical pathways perspective has been very, very beneficial.”
Having survived waves of testing needs, ramping up to meet the demands of an unprecedented volume each time, Laboratory Services team members have become nimble at shifting gears to help save lives during the pandemic. “It’s been a team effort,” she says. “And pulling all of us together is really kind of the catalyst to becoming One CentraCare.”
More than just a “test”
For many, getting a COVID “test” was seen as a quick and simple drive-through process. But in reality it was quite complex. “The drive-through included someone to release the orders, someone to collect the specimen, and someone to process the specimen to be sent to the laboratory,” said Johnson. “Then a courier picks up the specimen and brings it to the centralized laboratory. At that point, a team of people works on receiving, processing and testing the specimen. So it could easily be seven people involved in making sure we’re able to get the test result processed.”
In addition, there were many other partners whose teamwork made it all possible. “The I.T. team was absolutely vital,” said Johnson. “Everything we do requires accuracy and appropriate identification – so bar coding and tracking were essential. Our Call Center was also key because they were handling the scheduling of COVID test collections. And our Supply Chain colleagues and couriers were crucial to having a smooth operation. It was a huge effort from many different teams.”
Johnson served as the president of American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science in 2019-2020. Arguably, her term came at the most crucial moment in the organization’s history. When the pandemic hit, government officials in Minnesota and across the country looked to clinical laboratory leaders for testing strategies on an unprecedented scale.
“In the state of Minnesota, we’re part of the governor’s testing command center,” Johnson says. “I put a lot of time in at the state level with many other colleagues, making sure that we had supplies during the pandemic. On average, between 70 to 80 percent of medical decisions have some type of a laboratory test behind them,” Johnson says. “And during this past fiscal year, we completed approximately 500,000 more laboratory tests than the previous year, so it was remarkable.”
“During this past fiscal year, we completed approximately 500,000 more laboratory tests than the previous year, so it was remarkable.”Cindy Johnson, Sr. Director, Laboratory Services
Despite more awareness of Laboratory Services during the pandemic, Johnson believes it’s still easy for some people to overlook all the work that takes place behind the scenes. Calling her colleagues “heroes in lab coats,” Johnson can sound protective about her team. She says there’s a lingering well of pressure that laboratory workers and their supporting teams still face every day as the pandemic continues, even as it is subsiding.
“Laboratory professionals play an essential role on the healthcare team and are unsung heroes that I am proud to call ‘family.’ This past year we have all been challenged both personally and professionally, but we are definitely stronger together and I appreciate the commitment to fighting this pandemic. Because our work does matter.”