Critical values are defined as “laboratory results that indicate a life-threatening situation for the patient.” Because of their demanding nature, the appropriate healthcare professional must be notified urgently of a critical value. 

In the field of dermatopathology, the College of American Pathologists defines a critical value as a critical diagnosis such as “a medical condition that is clinically unusual or unforeseen and should be addressed at some point in the patient’s course.”

All laboratories, including dermatopathology labs, are required to exercise effective communication when it comes to reporting critical diagnoses and must have a written protocol in place. This is in accordance with laboratory regulations outlined by CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments; CLIA ’88) and the Joint Commission (TJC) National Safety Goals.

Dermatology clinics should understand what qualifies as a critical or a significant unexpected diagnosis. By examining how labs identify and manage critical diagnoses, defining the referring provider/lab partnership, and understanding how results are shared, we can expedite treatment and improve patient care.

Management of Critical Diagnosis in the Lab

Immediate and decisive action is required in the dermatopathology lab to identify and report critical diagnoses to the dermatologist as soon as possible. Every dermatopathology laboratory should have a written protocol outlining the diagnoses that are considered critical. In most instances, a new diagnosis of invasive melanoma is considered a critical diagnosis, as well as a life-threatening diagnosis such as staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome, graft versus host disease, or toxic epidermal necrolysis. Unalarming in appearance, each of these skin disorders could lead to serious health complications if not treated quickly. 

Once identified as critical or significant, the laboratory is responsible for documenting how and when the results are communicated with the dermatology clinic. If the diagnosis is shared over the phone, there should be a record of who made and received the call. In addition to ensuring the clinic accepts and understands the results, the lab keeps a record to comply with existing laboratory regulations.

The Referring Provider/Lab Partnership

When a clinic and laboratory form a new partnership, the dermatologist and lab open communication lines to clarify the types of results they define as urgent or critical.

Though 75 percent of laboratories have a written policy for handling critical and significant unexpected diagnoses, clinics need to ensure their lab’s processes meet the needs of patients and practices (for instance, if a dermatologist establishes that he or she wants a notification for melanoma in-situ as well as invasive melanoma, or for unexpected cases of Tinea spp). By communicating regularly regarding cases, mutual trust will develop over time between the lab and the clinic.

Sharing Urgent Results

The most crucial step in the critical diagnosis process comes when the dermatologist shares the results with patients and points them towards treatment. The urgency is real, as the rate of survival decreases 5 percent for patients with stage I melanoma treated between 30 and 59 days compared with those treated in the first 30 days after diagnosis. 

To ensure fast and precise action, it is helpful when labs share critical values directly to the EMR in addition to a phone call. Full-service dermpath labs like PathologyWatch transfer results and digital images electronically, enabling clinics to correlate with dermatopathologists instantly. At the same time, accessing the diagnosis in the EMR makes it easy for dermatologists to quickly share the results with patients on a tablet or laptop, reducing worrisome waiting periods.

Whenever a dermatology clinic sends a batch of request sheets to the lab, there are chances for revealing critical diagnoses. By clarifying what constitutes a critical value, defining the referring physician/lab partnership, and examining the best way to share results, you can increase optimal treatment and recovery for patients.