One positive effect of the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on clinical laboratories was the spotlight it put on the critical nature of laboratories in the US healthcare system. At the same time, the pandemic stress-tested the clinical laboratory industry and the US healthcare system as a whole and brought to the forefront systemic issues that continue to slow down labs.
Clinical laboratories are looking to technology for solutions to ensure preparedness for future health emergencies and shore up encumbering processes. Here are five key technology trends shaping clinical laboratories today.
The clinical laboratory horizon
Greater efficiency through automation
Post-pandemic, laboratory automation is booming. Market researchers predict the global market will grow from $3.6 billion to $4.6 billion by 2026. The long-time labor shortage in clinical laboratories is a major driving force behind this growth.
Labor shortage problems came to a head when COVID-19 testing began in early 2019 and continued as COVID testing volumes spiked at different times in the intervening three years. Clinical laboratories were caught short. They needed to quickly fill gaps in testing capacity by investing in equipment and instrumentation and take measures to retain existing staff by tackling inefficient and often unrewarding manual processes that slowed down staff productivity and sometimes introduced errors, mainly in the pre-analytic and post-analytic stages of the clinical testing workflows. Automation has been the solution.
Automating these pre- and post-analytic steps, like sorting, labeling, barcoding, decapping, aliquoting and recapping specimens helps labs make significant strides toward productivity. Many US clinical laboratories find automation in these areas effective at driving greater laboratory efficiency and scale, allowing many to manage workload with limited staffing and thereby balance the concomitant COVID-fueled pressures of employee burnout and the Great Resignation. Automation also has other welcome consequences, like focusing on quality management systems for reducing human errors and avoiding customer service issues like reducing lost specimens, allowing laboratorians to stay focused on their core diagnostic work.
Capacity sharing via partnerships
Clinical laboratories had to scale up quickly with molecular testing equipment, supplies and know-how during the pandemic. Laboratories all over the country scaled up with commendable speed to support over 79 million CDC-reported COVID-19 tests in 2020. Some labs now find themselves with the potentially costly consequence of excess capacity. To protect their bottom lines, labs created new partnerships to optimize resources.
US clinical laboratories are collaborating to optimize testing capabilities and maintain preparedness for any future wave of COVID infections or a new contagion. Through formal mergers and acquisitions or informal test-sharing arrangements, laboratories partner to balance better investments, equipment and staffing capacity, test volumes, outbreak preparedness and cost.
The technology imperative for these partnerships will be establishing interfaces between existing enterprise electronic health records (EHR) systems for order and specimen routing and implementing shared barcoding, labeling and routing systems.
Support for remote samples
Specimens collected outside of traditional healthcare settings are another trend that accelerated during the pandemic. COVID-19 had an indelible impact on US healthcare delivery, shifting the points of care and redirecting healthcare consumers to drive-through testing, telemedicine, pop-up and mobile testing sites, remote health monitoring devices and over-the-counter test kits. As CMS, the largest US payor organization, still works to incorporate telemedicine into its coverages for the long term, healthcare consumers continue taking advantage of these new conveniences, and innovations in at-home testing options are on the horizon.
For clinical laboratories receiving specimens, these changes raise some concerns, mainly for the quality of specimens and the reliability of results. Remote sample collection puts the supplies, procedure, handling and transport into the hands of the patient and not necessarily a healthcare professional. Clinical laboratories will need to develop the means to intake, process and result these new sample forms and still deliver the same high-quality results. Close collaboration with manufacturers and suppliers will support the inevitable increase in samples collected outside traditional healthcare settings.
As remote sample collection grows, another technological imperative for clinical laboratories is the downstream convergence of lab results with remote monitoring data and patient health records. This space is ripe for innovation and significant advancements in patient care.
Diagnostic data interoperability for better patient care
When COVID-19 testing began, testing providers built consumer-facing apps and web portals to organize test scheduling and results delivery. That was the impetus US healthcare consumers needed to embrace digital interfaces with their healthcare providers. Hospitals and healthcare systems will continue to increase the interoperability of clinical, anatomic and molecular laboratory information system (LIS) data and among disparate electronic health record (EHR) systems. This interoperability will deliver diagnostic test results in increasingly standardized and portable formats.
For patients, greater interoperability will enable innovations in data portability that allow them to consolidate their health data from multiple sources into a single digital health record. Most Americans have a long, disjointed trail of healthcare records and laboratory results to consolidate – a result of changes in locations, employers, insurance plans and healthcare providers. For providers, data interoperability will improve the depth and scope of patients’ health history data to inform new care decisions.
Reductions in duplicate and unnecessary lab tests are expected to be welcome consequences of this trend toward greater data interoperability. One study showed that as many as one in three patients who transfer between facilities within 12 hours is subject to a duplicate diagnostic test, and one in five transferred patients receives a diagnostic test that’s not clinically indicated. Improved data sharing between EHRs and the consolidation of personal records by patients to better inform clinicians of prior test results will result in increased patient safety and savings to both payors and consumers.
The potential of artificial intelligence
The fifth technology trend is as transformative for clinical laboratories as it is for medical science. Artificial intelligence (AI) can scour large data sets to identify patterns and unknown linkages between hereditary factors, environmental conditions and disease. These discoveries can lead to early detection and advanced personalized medicine and public health.
Digital pathology for automated scans of digitized tissue images is an AI application gaining momentum among US anatomic pathology laboratories. Others include correlating laboratory test results with data from patients’ remote devices for passive monitoring, correlating laboratory test data with digital CT scans and radiology images, and identifying and rectifying payor and patient billing issues.
The future of LIMS
At Clinisys, we work to advance laboratory diagnostic informatics to support all five of these technology trends and more. As the global leader in laboratory informatics, we constantly look ahead to develop innovative solutions that help laboratories of all specialties streamline their work, develop new efficiencies, facilitate data sharing and incorporate new technologies. Read our vision, and partner with us for the future.
Take the next step toward your laboratory’s future.
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