For the first time in seven years, the state health department moved yesterday to suspend the license of a private medical laboratory, because of practices that could have put patients' lives in jeopardy.
Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said the Ballentine & Shub Medical Laboratory Inc. in downtown Baltimore, which analyzes blood specimens for several area nursing homes, falsified test results and failed to heed a consultant's warnings that its readings may have been in error.
Mr. Sabatini issued a letter yesterday to the laboratory's owner, Morris R. Shub, saying that the permit will be suspended indefinitely beginning at 5 p.m. today. The practical effect is that the laboratory will have to shut down until it can prove that the serious problems have been remedied.
"My concern was that these looked like life-threatening problems," Mr. Sabatini said in an interview yesterday. "Given that, I thought it was important to do something to make them stop endangering people -- right away."
However, he said, investigators had not determined whether any jTC patients had actually been harmed.
Mr. Shub and the laboratory's acting director, Les Cunningham, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The laboratory, located at 1111 Park Ave., read blood specimens for signs of infection or disease -- looking for white and red blood cell counts, and cholesterol and chemical levels that could indicate whether organs such as the heart or liver were functioning properly.
In a 40-page document, health inspectors said they found instances in which the laboratory found abnormal levels of certain chemicals but then wrote in patients' records that the levels were actually normal.
In one case, inspectors said, the laboratory found an abnormal potassium level but then recorded a normal reading after the patient's physician said he really wasn't interested in a potassium test. A lab supervisor was quoted as saying that he substituted "an arbitrary number" for the true reading.
An abnormal potassium level could indicate a diseased heart, Mr. Sabatini said.
Mr. Sabatini said that lab records showed a clear pattern of falsification.
In other instances, the health department said the laboratory ignored warnings from an outside consultant that its instruments may not have been adjusted properly to yield accurate results.
There was also little evidence, inspectors said, that anyone in charge was providing technical supervision to make sure that laboratory workers were doing their jobs properly.
"It looks as if this lab were left to its own devices without clear technical supervision for six to eight months," said Michael Wajda, assistant director of laboratory licensing.