How the Lab Team Is Supporting Better, Faster COVID-19 Testing and More

Matt Bolen Valley Health System

Lab Manager Matt Bolen beside equipment in the VHS Core Lab.

Unassumingly tucked away on the campus of Valley Hospital lies one of the secret weapons of healthcare professionals’ diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 and many other challenging medical conditions – the Valley Health System (VHS) Core Lab.

Since the first quarter of 2020, the Core Lab team has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight, working to support the emergency, surgery and patient care units of eight hospitals and freestanding emergency departments.

“Most people only interact with the Lab if they are having their blood drawn by a phlebotomist,” said VHS Chief Medical Officer Dan McBride, MD. “However, the Lab plays a critical role in patient care and safety, from maintaining the necessary supplies and equipment to ensuring test results are accurate and timely so physicians can make a proper diagnosis and plan of care for patients.”

Securing Supplies and In-House COVID-19 Testing

To effectively fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a successful strategy has been vital.

“Our game plan was to attack COVID testing from a flexible and multifaceted standpoint,” explained Matt Bolen, lab manager for the VHS Core Lab. “Our first step was to secure the collection supplies needed to obtain patient specimens. Swab kits instantly became a hot commodity. The second step was to work on validation of the in-house COVID test."

Validation of laboratory tests is defined as the collection and evaluation of data that verifies scientific evidence that the lab process is delivering consistent, quality results. "Our Microbiology team did a phenomenal job with the validation, which they completed in approximately one week. For context, under normal circumstances, this type of validation would have taken a couple of months, and potentially longer if there were any unforeseen issues,” Bolen said.

Meanwhile, other coronavirus–related activities were taking place at the Core Lab, including “troubleshooting any and all problems and issues related to COVID-19 from a lab perspective,” said VHS Laboratory Director Jennifer Archer. “Matt reorganized the workflow and staffing to support the pandemic, manages the single point of contact for COVID-19 problem-solving, and supports all the hospital-based managers with supplies and training regarding electronic medical records processes surrounding coronavirus.”

For the month of December, the Core Lab ran more than 12,000 COVID tests, with results performed there and at two other reference laboratories with an average turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours. To meet the continued need, the Lab team identified new suppliers, thoroughly vetted them and established a flow of COVID collection supplies, said Bolen.

The Core Lab also partnered with the VHS Information Technology department to reduce the time needed to process samples and report results. “We worked closely with our IT department to build and interface testing directly into our Laboratory Information System (LIS),” said Bolen. “The new setup reduced the processing of samples to a couple of steps, as opposed to multiple steps, and automatically sends results to all required parties as soon as the result is released into our LIS.”

Never Losing Sight of Other Serious Medical Issues

While COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines, Bolen and his team haven’t lost sight of patients who aren’t infected with the coronavirus.

“The Core Lab provides esoteric testing in the areas of Chemistry, Transfusion Medicine, Hematology, Coagulation, and Microbiology that are typically too specialized for a normal hospital-based laboratory to undertake,” explained Bolen. This testing often requires specialized equipment and/or training that would be difficult or unequitable for a hospital-based laboratory. In addition to the COVID tests, the Core Lab team performs over 150,000 other tests each month to help diagnose a variety of medical issues in hospitalized patients, from determining if the patient is stable and ready to go home and more serious conditions such as cancer.

In the midst of everything else, Bolen and his team also implemented a new test for troponin, a protein that is a key indicator if someone has had a heart attack. This is one of the tests performed immediately when a patient comes in with chest pain. They also implemented an entirely new Chemistry system within the Core Lab that tests everything from electrolytes and comprehensive metabolic panels to specialized testing for the kidney and liver functions, toxicology and more.

Careers in Laboratory Services

When people think of a hospital lab, they “typically experience it from the viewpoint of a phlebotomist collecting their blood or a nurse collecting a swab; they don’t realize it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Bolen.

Behind the curtain is a team of lab assistants preparing that sample for testing, a team of medical technologists running a multitude of analyzers to test and provide a result for that sample, and a leadership team helping to ensure that samples move through this process smoothly and deliver the highest-quality result possible.

There are multiple career opportunities available in the Lab, according to Bolen, who discovered his own passion during a high school field trip where he learned about the program of Medical Technology/Clinical Laboratory Science. “It was kind of a ‘Eureka!’ moment where I said to myself, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ ”

The lab offers many opportunities for career advancement, too. “We have multiple team members who started off in entry-level positions, continued with school and are now medical technologists. I personally started at the Core Lab five years ago as a medical technologist. I was promoted to a lead technologist, then a lab supervisor, and finally the general lab manager,” said Bolen.

“Matt’s true dedication to laboratory medicine and The Valley Health System is reflected in his commitment to maintaining operations seamlessly,” said Archer. “He works tireless hours and is always upbeat and positive. He has kept his employees safe and rallies his team with positive mentoring, and that is reflected in our daily metrics. I believe he is a Healthcare Hero.”