Bulletin Number 195

Over the last few decades, paediatric laboratory medicine has developed with an increasing focus on the specific medical needs of children, creating new opportunities for workforce and training development for pathologists.

For most of the 20th century, laboratory investigations for children were usually undertaken as part of a service for patients of all ages. There was limited appreciation of the differences between results for adults and those for children. What might be a concerningly high serum alkaline phosphatase activity for an adult, for instance, would have been a normal result for a growing child but, without including age-related reference ranges, the report may not have conveyed this information.

There was limited appreciation of the differences between results for adults and those for children.

Some of the earliest books to describe paediatric reference intervals were published in the 1980s by Blackwell Scientific Publications and by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry.1,2 From then on, we have become increasingly aware of the many differences between younger and older populations. In fact, an experienced chemical pathologist suggests that the greatest advances in paediatric biochemistry over the last 40 years have been in newborn screening (for further information see Successes and challenges in newborn screening for metabolic disorders on page 389) and more accurate paediatric reference intervals.3

Further development of paediatric laboratory medicine

The authors of a 2002 review concluded that the practice of paediatric laboratory medicine (PLM) involves unique challenges related to development, nutrition, growth and diseases during different periods of infancy, childhood and adolescence.4 They proposed that subspecialty paediatric laboratory testing offers many opportunities for improved paediatric patient care, research and education, and that it is best practiced with close collaboration between pathologists and clinicians. They described the many challenges involved, including the need to deal with small sample volumes and the need for reference centre provision of esoteric tests.

An editorial in 2009 described a worldwide PLM network.5 The opinion was expressed that children cannot just be regarded as small adults, a fundamental approach that holds for diagnostic services for the management of sick children.

In 2017, leading international specialists in the field reflected on reasons for developing a PLM subspecialty distinct from adult pathology and laboratory medicine.6 In many countries, young patients are treated in children’s hospitals. The blood volumes available for testing are lower than those for adults, and urine collection can be problematic, which are issues that make microanalysis especially useful. The test menu is different for children, too, particularly regarding the diagnosis of inborn errors of metabolism and follow-up of newborn screening. A good network of reference laboratories is needed to evaluate rare diseases present in childhood. All these considerations favour the provision of specialist paediatric clinical laboratory support for the management of childhood disease.

The test menu is different for children, too, particularly regarding the diagnosis of inborn errors of metabolism and follow-up of newborn screening.

The International Federation of Clinical Chemistry Task Force on Paediatric Laboratory Medicine was established in 2006 as the successor to the International Association of Paediatric Laboratory Medicine. The task force has several aims as follows:

  • to coordinate the establishment of worldwide reference ranges for laboratory test results inpaediatric patients of all age groups
  • to form a sound support basis for the continuation of the successful InternationalCongresses of Paediatric Laboratory Medicine
  • to create a worldwide network of scientists working in laboratories that specialise in paediatric medicine.

In keeping with this mission, the congresses focus on scientific and technological achievements in all areas of paediatric clinical and diagnostic laboratory medicine. The most recent one in South Africa was the most successful yet,7 and the next real or virtual meeting planned for November 2021 in Germany will tackle emerging technologies.

To address the challenges and issues specific to PLM, specialists in the UK formed a new national collaborative network in 2014 − the Paediatric Laboratory Medicine Network (PaLMnet). The network aims to provide expertise and advice on the best laboratory techniques for use in both paediatric specialist and non-specialist clinical laboratories alike. It is already making a difference; a recent audit of sweat testing in the UK was carried out and, from the evidence obtained, recommendations on sample collection were made. Further differences have been recognised between paediatric and adult laboratory medicine, such as different typical presentations, test repertoires and priorities, and the higher proportion of abnormal results in children. Testing may require greater urgency and different critical action limits.

Researchers in the department of paediatric laboratory medicine at SickKids, Toronto, Canada, working towards reducing the impact of childhood illness.
Researchers in the department of paediatric laboratory medicine at SickKids, Toronto, Canada, working towards reducing the impact of childhood illness.

Workforce and training challenges

In the UK, many experienced scientists work in paediatric biochemistry laboratories, but it is difficult to recruit new staff with suitable specialty experience. Discussions have started on establishing paediatric metabolic training with a curriculum and funding. But these advances are not exclusive to the UK; we now have good evidence that several of the initiatives to establish this specialty elsewhere have been successful. The first edition of a textbook entitled Pediatric Laboratory Medicine was published in 2017 and is intended as a resource for basic PLM training.8 It discusses the unique characteristics of paediatric practice and covers a range of biochemical aspects, as well as molecular diagnostics, microbiology and haematology for children.

The UK metabolic biochemistry network, MetBioNet, is a good example of what we can achieve through collaboration and networking.9 Its participants have developed a range of useful resources, delivered analytical quality improvements and are addressing training and educational needs. By engaging with other strategic groups, such as the national newborn screening and inherited metabolic disease groups, MetBioNet has helped to influence the provision of children’s laboratory services in the UK.

Current paediatric pathology training in the UK focuses on histopathology. I believe that it would be valuable to have full specialty recognition by one or more professional regulators and a curriculum, courses and a recognised qualification to cover laboratory blood sciences for children, especially for clinical biochemistry, haematology and immunology. Qualified specialists might run clinics for inborn errors of metabolism or lipid disorders for both children and young adults to provide continuity of care.

Because of the many important differences between children and adults, PLM is rapidly becoming a pathology specialty in its own right.

Because of the many important differences between children and adults, PLM is rapidly becoming a pathology specialty in its own right. The scope of knowledge typically covers the paediatric aspects of various non-histopathology disciplines, mainly clinical biochemistry, metabolic medicine, toxicology, haematology, blood transfusion, immunology, genetics, microbiology and virology. This evolving focus is likely to result in better medical care for the children of the future.

References are available.

Reproduced with permission from The Pathologist.