Lab Automation and Productivity

Vol. 25 No. 11 Page 20

As labs adapt new testing techniques, the role of automation will grow.

If there’s a single constant of the clinical laboratory industry, it’s the evolution of technology. More advanced methods or techniques translate to more efficient SOPs. As such, individual facilities are turning to automated processes in order to increase productivity regardless of size, location or throughput. In a recent interview with ADVANCE, Robin A. Felder, PhD, professor of pathology and associate director of laboratory medicine at the University of Virginia Health System, discussed the vital role of automation in clinical laboratory practices.

“Laboratory automation has been shown in peer-reviewed literature to reduce human errors by 50%, while increasing productivity by as much as 75%. Automation can help reduce reagent waste by 25% as well,” said Felder. “Automation standardizes laboratory practices and [helps] maintain the continuity of laboratory-wide quality improvement programs by hardwiring quality into the underlying fabric of the laboratory.”

For perspective laboratory managers, owners and investors, the process of implementing automated systems can be overwhelming. Between the upfront costs of the equipment, the time needed to train and orient the laboratory staff and the limited resources during installation, automation is an easy area of the business to put off for a later date. Even for brand new laboratories, automation can mean more time before the facility is up and running from an operational perspective.

The draw of automated processes, however, comes from the return on investment (ROI) they provide. Ultimately, automation streamlines the clinical laboratory. It allows for greater efficiency in manual processes, which then frees up clinical laboratorians to focus on the more analytical aspects of their job; it provides increased standardization and precision between samples; and it improves turnaround times (TATs).

“Costs can be high for automation capital equipment [purchases]. However, these systems recoup the investment in as little as five years while having a life expectancy of 10 years or more,” explained Felder. “When one figures in all of the benefits of automation—such as improved turnaround time allowing earlier patient discharge, reagent and quality control savings, reduced laboratory error and reduced labor costs—then the system can be shown to be a good investment.”

From an operational perspective, the transition to automated processes can strain the staff in terms of workload. In order to make up for time (or equipment) lost, the laboratory staff could end up having to work longer hours or simply do more with less in the interim. While these are temporary obstacles, they can nevertheless have a negative impact on morale depending on how long it is before the system is functional.  There are a variety of ways to minimalize any major issues created during the transition, and laboratory managers and administrators must plan ahead in order to find a solution that works for their individual lab.

“Installing laboratory automation can be as disruptive as installing a new laboratory [information] system (LIS). Thus, laboratories need to provide extra staffing and long hours to convert a lab to automation,” continued Felder. “Some laboratories adopt a one-workcell-at-a-time approach to automating their lab in order to minimize disruption.”

Despite the obstacles of implementing an automated system, many healthcare facilities have already recognized the benefits. One of the most common applications of automation is in manual processes—pipetting, preparing slides, etc. While this is appealing for MLPs as it allows them to focus on the more scientific aspects of their job without worrying about the more tedious and time-consuming work of sample preparation, the benefits of automation have started to spread throughout the laboratory and impact multiple sciences and specialties.

“Automation is broadening its capabilities in clinical laboratories to include serology testing, molecular biology, urinalysis and others,” said Felder. “The future will see highly flexible, intelligent, and rapid processing of medical specimens to support the increasing use of outpatient surgery and treatment in health systems (which can significantly benefit from rapid turnaround and accuracy).”

In order to keep up with the ever-increasing testing needs of healthcare facilities, laboratory testing will have to become leaner, faster and more accurate. Essentially, this means being able to produce more despite having fewer resources, and in this way, automated systems are the next logical step. As clinical laboratories continue to adapt new roles and actualize new technology, the importance of automated processes will continue to grow. By starting the process of incorporating automated systems sooner rather than later, clinical labs can prepare for the long run and allow for more flexible options in the future.

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