Medical lab mistakes are hidden from public, report finds

    Listen
     Microbiologist Tatiana Travis reads a panel to check on a bacterium's resistance to an antibiotic in an antimicrobial resistance and characterization lab within the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

    Microbiologist Tatiana Travis reads a panel to check on a bacterium's resistance to an antibiotic in an antimicrobial resistance and characterization lab within the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

    We question our care, we questions our hospital bills…why don’t we question our labs results?

     

    Many of our medical appointments involve tests—blood work or screens that are then sent off to labs. And most of us don’t question the results we get back. But what if the lab has made a mistake?

    An investigative report by Ellen Gabler of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that labs are far from perfect, and that mistakes are hidden from the public by a secretive inspection system.

    “The implication of wrong lab test is really serious,” said Gabler. “I wrote about a man who was told he was HIV positive, when he wasn’t.”

    The false HIV test almost ended the man’s marriage. A woman Gabler met lost her newborn son because of a wrong lab test.

    “She had a test done in the beginning of her pregnancy that was supposed to detect some antibodies, it didn’t, and her baby ended up dying after he was born.”

    Gabler said the problem could have been addressed and fixed, had the test been correct.

    About 70 percent of medical decisions are made based on lab results, and even something relatively minor—like, say, a cholesterol test—can have big implications on our lives. But tracing lab mistakes is a difficult job, as Gabler found out during her months-long investigation.

    “The federal government is the ultimate regulator of labs,” explained Gabler. “But private accrediting organizations do the inspections. Labs that do more complicated tests are inspected once every two years, but these inspection reports are secret.”

    Gabler said she spent much of her time reporting this story arguing over access to paperwork.

    “The private accrediting groups can see the inspection reports, or if they lead to very serous sanctions the government can release them but that almost never happens.”

    So patients really have no way of checking if the lab they are using has conducted bad tests in the past.

    Gabler explained that many labs get no more than a slap on the wrist even for serious mistakes.

    “In some cases the federal government proposes a sanction, but it is rarely imposed. And only sanctions that are imposed are public. In 2013, only 90 sanctions were imposed,” Gabler explained.

    The reporter says she’s been flooded with emails from people who have experienced lab mistakes, among them an elderly lady who tested positive for marijuana use in a drug test and was barred from volunteering in a hospital, even though her second test came back negative.

    Gabler says she hopes her report will lead to more transparency in lab inspection reports.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.