The Fastest Tests Beyond the West: Inside Seattle Children’s Lab

We’re approaching flu season, a time when you hear a lot about the importance of getting a flu shot, and parents get nervous about children catching the flu.  Heck, even parents get nervous about being sick. 

Speedy testing for the flu can help ease anxiety for parents – it might be just a common cold, after all.  And if it’s not, a fast diagnosis means a child receives the right treatment promptly.

Fastest in the Nation

Seattle Children’s laboratory is the fastest in the nation for producing respiratory virus results.  It’s a fact that Mike Astion, MD, PhD, medical director of Lab Medicine, is pretty proud of.  He and his team have made a lot of progress to reach that goal in recent years.

In 2011, patients at Seattle Children’s with severe respiratory symptoms waited an average of eight hours to learn whether or not they had influenza or another virus.  But in 2012, about 85 percent of patients received results within two hours of being cultured.  What’s more, 95 percent heard the result within three hours. 

test tubes

Toyota Production in Healthcare

How did the lab improve so quickly with its diagnostic delivery?  “We used Continuous Performance Improvement (CPI), or a form of the Toyota Production System and math modeling,” said Dr. Astion.  Children’s also invested in film array, a rapid virus testing technology that few hospitals have in their core laboratories.

Eight undergraduate University of Washington industrial engineering students helped with the redesign of the lab, working with Children’s quality experts.  “When we implemented this CPI process, we saw that this would change lab services and, really, microbiology history,” said Dr. Astion.

Who’s Got the Whooping Cough?

Seattle Children’s has played a key role in recent years in tracking the pertussis epidemic in Washington state.  Secretary of Health Mary Selecky declared an epidemic in April 2012, following a rise in pertussis cases that started in mid-2011.

Xuan Qin, PhD, and a senior lab scientist, said that Children’s tested more than 5,000 specimens for pertussis in the first six months of this year. That figure accounts for a significant portion of tests run in the entire state.  “Children’s lab also developed a test method that was able to distinguish three pathogenic species separately, which answers the question of whether the majority of cases that are still pertussis can be prevented by promoting pertussis vaccination,” said Dr. Qin.  Two of the species can present pertussis-like symptoms, but are not covered by pertussis vaccination.

Saving Time, Money = Happy Staff & Patients

Prior to restructuring the workflow in the lab and adding new technology, Children’s sent out thousands of respiratory cultures to specialty labs every year.  Bringing the test in-house saves money and time. More importantly, it ensures that patients get started on the right treatments faster.

Lab Medicine also oversees the in-house flu shot campaign, and has designed the clinic set-up at the hospital using math modeling.  “You’ll notice on the ‘Flu Cam,’ which has been set up to provide real-time video of our in-house flu shot waiting area, that very few people have to wait,” said Dr. Astion. 

All of the changes have made a difference, he said.  “Patients are being told if they have the flu or not faster, and if there’s a treatment, they’re getting that faster.  And if there’s no treatment, they can at least go home and not be worried. ‘My kid has a common cold virus,’ parents can say.  And that’s really beautiful.”

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Astion or Dr. Qin, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at [email protected]

As a reminder, visitors who are sick or have been exposed to an illness should not come to the hospital.

Patients and family members who live with patients can get a flu shot at Seattle Children’s at our Flu Vaccine Room on the main campus in Seattle.  Patients with a clinic appointment should ask your provider during your visit about how to get a flu shot.

Learn more about Children’s Flu Vaccine Program, vaccination information and ways to prevent the flu.