Teaching Healthcare Staff to Draw Blood for Accurate Diagnosis and Patient Safety

Dennis Ernst

Dennis Ernst, a Workforce Wonder

Every superhero needs a headquarters where he can develop new tools and train the next generation of heroes. Phlebotomy educator Dennis Ernst is hiding in plain sight in Corydon, Indiana, at the Center for Phlebotomy Education, which he founded in 2000. This is the real-life laboratory hero’s sanctuary, where he shed his lab coat disguise and donned the mantle of a workforce educator.

“I noticed that more and more phlebotomy responsibilities were being taken out of the laboratory. This meant that blood might not always be drawn or handled properly. This caused a dramatic increase in specimen rejection rates and serious patient complications, even injury in some cases. I wanted to change this.”

Dennis Ernst, Founding Director,
Center for Phlebotomy Education, Inc.

Dennis Ernst literally wrote the first chapter in his real-life laboratory hero origin story. After many years as a bench-level medical technologist who witnessed dramatic changes in how hospitals managed the relationship between laboratory staff and healthcare providers, Dennis recognized he was suffering from professional burnout. He responded by challenging himself to become an agent of change for good phlebotomy practices.

As one-half of a dynamic duo, he co-authored a book for nursing personnel with his wife, a registered nurse. The book unleashed his passion for educating on the subject and led to his establishing the Center for Phlebotomy Education, Inc. He has never looked back since.

Phlebotomy is the practice of drawing blood from a patient to get a sample for medical testing, to prepare a patient for transfusion, or for blood donation.

Dennis recognizes that a mistake at any point in the process of drawing blood for testing could transform an opportunity to diagnose a patient’s health correctly into a deadly transaction of disease and harm. Good training and good tools are the antidote, in his opinion. In addition to giving lectures and trainings, writing a newsletter, and publishing books, Dennis volunteers for the Clinical & Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI). In that role, he helps to develop and maintain standards for drawing blood and other laboratory pre-analytic processes.

“The quality of the sample and the accuracy of a test result are entirely dependent on the phlebotomist knowing how to draw the sample correctly,” Dennis says. This is why he educates healthcare staff who practice phlebotomy to avoid a long-held practice: asking patients to pump their fists before drawing blood for tests. Repetitively flexed muscles release potassium into the bloodstream. For example, fist pumping could lead to the collection of a sample with a falsely high potassium result. This effect could mask an actual low potassium level, which could put a patient at risk of a seizure during surgery. Preventing fist pumping during blood collection, promoting best practices, and volunteering to improve professional standards are just some of the many ways this workforce wonder saves lives.