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J R Soc Med. 1999 July; 92(7): 339–341.
PMCID: PMC1297284

Transport and temperature effects on measurement of serum and plasma potassium.


Transport of blood samples from general practice to a central laboratory can result in spuriously high or low potassium concentrations. The importance of this phenomenon was studied in a general practice serving a population of 15,000 patients, 27 km from the pathology laboratory that routinely measured serum potassium. The design involved comparison of potassium levels between control serum (plain gel-separation serum tubes centrifuged in the surgery), routine serum (plain gel-separation tubes centrifuged in the laboratory) and routine plasma samples (lithium-heparin tubes centrifuged in the laboratory). Complete triple sets of data were obtained for 371 samples. Altman and Bland plots for the control serum vs routine serum samples showed a mean difference of +0.1 mmol/L with limits of agreement (+/- 2SD) +0.6 mmol/L, -0.4 mmol/L and for control serum vs routine plasma a mean difference of +0.2 mmol/L with limits of agreement +0.8 mmol/L, -0.4 mmol/L. There was a negative association between mean weekly routine plasma potassium levels with mean weekly temperatures achieved. Regression analysis indicated that both maximum temperature achieved and time to centrifugation significantly contributed to differences observed in the routine plasma samples, but not with the routine serum samples. For plasma samples exposed to high temperatures a clinically significant lowering of potassium concentrations can arise. These results confirm that spurious lowering of potassium concentrations occurs in plasma samples collected in a primary care setting. The preferred method is to centrifuge samples soon after venepuncture. Where this is not possible, collection into plain gel-separation tubes (serum) ensures less variation due to temperature and time to centrifugation than does collection into lithium-heparin tubes (plasma).

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Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
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