Laboratory critical to diagnosis, treatment

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Figuring out why someone is sick is like solving a riddle.

About 85 percent of the information a doctor uses to solve those riddles comes from one place: clinical laboratories.

The Yampa Valley Medical Center Laboratory quickly gives an abundance of information to doctors make their diagnoses.

In the laboratory, technicians have the power to perform about 700 types of tests. Each day, about 300 of the more common tests are completed, laboratory director Mary Poskus-Fell said.

In fact, about 92 percent of all tests that doctors order are done in the lab at the hospital -- only 8 percent are sent off to an outside lab.

The laboratory is integral to the hospital's functions, from daily physician visits to surgery, said Dr. William Cox, a pathologist for the Yampa Valley Medical Center Laboratory.

"To be able to support these services, you need to have a strong lab," Cox said. "The lab has evolved, to (a point where) literally, we would compete with any laboratory in the state."

In fact, the laboratory is on the leading edge of testing technology. For instance, technicians there can perform a test for parathyroid hormone that, a year and a half ago, some hospitals in Denver could not perform.

The test allows a surgeon to test a patient while he or she is undergoing surgery, so doctors can find out whether the patient has a tumor in his or her parathyroid glands and whether the surgery is removing the entire tumor.

As technology has improved, so have the laboratory's services, Poskus-Fell said.

Over her career at the laboratory, which began in 1990, she has seen the time it takes to detect deadly bacteria infection shrink from 48 hours to eight hours.

Another new test shows whether a woman is going into pre-term labor, so doctors can decide quickly whether she needs to be moved to another hospital that can better serve her and her baby's needs.

Some tests can be done with a single drop of blood, which is especially important when testing babies.

One of the laboratory's goals is "staying contemporary," Cox said.

That's possible through the laboratory's various machines, such as a chemical analyzer that can do more than 100 tests.

"The machine really is a workhorse. It does so many things, and it's capable of doing them quickly," Cox said.

Cox joined the lab in 1999. On his first visit, he said he was "enthralled" with the concept that the center would expand from a community hospital to a regional medical center.

One of its goals is to get local physicians' offices to send their blood work to the hospital instead of to laboratories in Denver, Poskus-Fell said. The services are faster, the costs are comparable, and because the laboratory is local, it's easy to get in touch with doctors if test results look strange, which creates efficiencies, Poskus-Fell said.

The patients like using local services a lot, too, she said. The hospital has two blood-draw stations in the Yampa Valley Medical Center Laboratory, with another in the Medical Office Building, making it easy for patients to give blood samples.

Soon, doctors will be able to order and review results securely on-line, which makes the entire process easier and more efficient, Poskus-Fell said.

A recent laboratory expansion, finished in the summer of 2003, provides for more patient privacy. There is more space for the many laboratory tasks, and now people waiting for tests have a waiting area. The laboratory is an accredited lab through the College of American Pathologists, the highest standard of accreditation a lab can receive.

But one of the laboratory's most important strengths is its staff, Cox and Poskus-Fell said. "They care so much for the patients," he said.

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