Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)

Medical Officials Say Lab Recovering From Rough Start.

Byline: Winthrop Quigley Journal Staff Writer

The consultants made it sound so good, so logical in 1998.

The University of New Mexico, Presbyterian and St. Vincent hospitals would combine their laboratories, and in the process save money and even attract new markets.

TriCore Reference Laboratories was created, immediately becoming the 20th largest independent clinical laboratory in America. This year, it will process 3.4 million tests ranging from simple cholesterol checks to life-and-death time-critical enzyme tests for heart attack victims.

But the transition has been far from smooth.

Administrators and doctors at UNM and Presbyterian hospitals say TriCore is better than the alternatives: retaining separate labs or allowing a national lab to come in and take away local control and jobs.

And it just received a clean bill of health from accreditation inspectors.

But officials and doctors concede there have been problems.

There have been charges of declining patient care and inept management. E-mails by frustrated physicians and staff described long waits for tests, and some even suggested patients endangered by inaccurate testing.

Reports from lab technicians told of specimens left in lock boxes so long they were useless. Memos described patients misdiagnosed as having HIV and of blood improperly typed.

A woman undergoing chemotherapy was incorrectly told she was pregnant. A physician learned hours after he ordered a test that his patient had toxic levels of lithium in her blood.

The Journal recently reviewed dozens of documents, including financial statements, internal e-mails, memos and reports. They depicted a TriCore that was being criticized by those who use it.

For example:

* UNM Hospital physicians complained TriCore's computer system couldn't accurately report epidemiologic results to state health authorities as required by law. …

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