Contributing lab leader: Shannon MiIller
Laboratories are essential components of the healthcare system, performing complex testing to help identify and triage illnesses, monitor disease progression, and detect treatment responses. By obtaining critical information from clinical samples, every laboratory member ensures that physicians and nurses can make informed, data-driven decisions so each patient can receive the best personalized care possible.
In the first of this 2-part interview, we sat down with Shannon Miller, a 7-time Olympic medalist gymnast, women’s health and fitness advocate, and cancer survivor, to discuss her journey as a cancer patient, the significance of quality and timely diagnostic testing, and how lab leaders can be involved in improving patient experience and outcomes.
Q: As a rare cancer survivor, how critical was the diagnostic workup in your patient journey, especially from a timing and quality perspective?
The lab can direct the right treatment, at the right time, with the best possible outcome. But so much of the journey boils down to trust. We put our trust into the lab at, typically, a highly emotional time. If the timeliness or the quality is off, then that trust is undermined, and that's often at a time of extreme emotional volatility. Waiting for results is often the most excruciating part of any diagnosis - the worry and emotion.
As a patient, we need to have some feeling that someone's working on a diagnosis, a person is in our corner. If the results were expected at 2:00 pm the next day, your mind's going crazy by 1:58 pm. So if those results are delayed, we aren't usually thinking, "Oh goodness, the lab's backed up" or “Someone was out sick that day.”
Our mind is spinning with all of those worst-case scenarios about our diagnosis. It's probably not right or the best thing for us to do as patients or caregivers, but it is a natural tendency.
Q: As a patient, you generally have no direct contact with laboratories performing your diagnostic test. There may be a perception of feeling distant or disconnected from this part of the patient care journey. Did you ever feel that there was a disconnect between the lab and your caregivers that could have been minimized?
Unfortunately, as a patient, you often don't have any connection between yourself and the lab. You don't get to meet them, shake their hand, or say thank you. So it's hard to say if there's a good connection between your caregivers and the lab because you often don't have that awareness or access to that information.
As a patient, you trust that everyone on the medical team involved in your case is working together for the best outcome. We want to believe in a seamless integration of the lab and the rest of the medical team. By its nature, lab work needs to be timely and accurate, and the doctors and nurses are trained to deal directly with the patient and keep those lines of communication open so the flow of information is clear. It's important to remember that everyone has their part to play.
As an athlete, my job and focus was to successfully tumble on a four-inch wide balance beam. For my coach, trainer, and equipment manager, each of them had their part to play for a successful outcome. We needed to allow others to be the best at what they do.
Q: What was your mindset during your journey from diagnosis to treatment? Was there anything you wanted to be more involved in or informed about?
Honestly, I could only recall a few of the medical details because I was just moving through this nightmare. So having a caregiver, like a spouse or family member, taking in the information and trying to help you navigate everything is incredibly helpful, maybe even essential.
Personally, I'm a reader. That's how I take in the best information. While this may sound silly, I would love to have had a folder to take home. Then on my own time, when I'm in the right headspace, I can read all of this information, from the doctor’s notes to results from the lab work, and decide on the next steps. It would have been great to have all that information together in one spot where I could look it over in black and white.
While you're in the doctor's office, we often hear only what we want to hear, whether good or bad. It's hard to digest it all in those few moments. These appointments are usually very short visits with a lot of information. Fortunately, there is a copious amount of accessible information available now than there was a decade ago when I was diagnosed. We must make it as easy as possible for the patient to understand their care and the entire process, by doing this we will be actively improving the patient experience.
Q: How can laboratory leaders, like directors or managers, improve patient experience?
In most cases, the lab affects each patient's outcome. The information they collect helps diagnose and treat the patient. The lab can be the driving force behind a positive outcome.
It’s not just for things like cancer. Getting your baseline lab work each year allows you to understand your lifestyle and what you need to be as healthy as possible. What are you doing well? Where are your deficiencies? Where can you improve? That information is central to our health, so everything the lab does matters.
Q: You’ve talked about how many medical team members can affect the patient experience, and how each of them plays a role in a patient’s outcome. Could you give three pieces of advice to lab leaders on how they may help improve the patient experience?
Put yourself in the patient's shoes. For most of us, that's not difficult because we have been the patient or have a loved one who has been the patient. We all need to understand that timeliness and quality are critical with every diagnostic test, every time, and every day.
Focus on communication. If you're leading, you're communicating. Every single detail is crucial, so it’s important to convey that information in a prompt and accurate manner.
Make sure that people feel appreciated. When your job is behind the scenes, how do you feel fulfilled? How are you reminded that what you do each day matters? As a gymnast, I loved when the audience cheered when I finished a routine. It feels good when people acknowledge you did a good job. So, how do we ensure that those we work with receive positive feedback? When we get positive feedback, it motivates us further to do a great job. It creates enthusiasm and energy for the work, renewing your focus. Everyone wins.
Q: In many ways, labs are the unsung heroes of the patient’s experience. What would you say to those lab workers who help shape each patient’s journey?
To everyone who is a lab leader or lab employee, I just want to thank you. While I didn't get to know the names of the people that saved my life through their lab work, each one of them was essential to my successful outcome. For those who are working in the lab, I hope you walk into work every day, even on the tough days, and just know that what you do matters to somebody.