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Laboratory Labor Spotlight: Lean on Technology to Relieve the Strain and Shortage of Staff

by Carolyn Woods | September 15, 2021 | Blog, What’s New

To say that U.S. laboratories are experiencing labor shortages is not breaking news—staffing numbers have declined for years alongside rising demand. For reasons ranging from retirement, burnout and limited career advancement to aging populations, rising disease rates, expanding test menus, closing educational programs and more, outlooks for the lab workforce are concerning.

  • The average expected five-year overall retirement rate is 15.8%. While that is lower than the assessment performed two years prior, the most recently available data at the time of this writing is from 2018—which does not reflect possible changes in retirement projections due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Overall employment of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians is projected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations (again, a pre-pandemic estimation).
  • The average vacancy rate is currently 8.6%, while demand for medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians is expected to increase 19% between 2016 and 2030.
  • The number of accredited academic programs available to graduate new laboratory professionals has been decreasing for many years.
  • Innovation in testing and precision medicine has led to an approximate 300% increase in genetic tests in recent years. Demand for lab services continues rising as populations increase utilization of primary care and chronic disease management.
Laboratory Labor Spotlight: Lean on Technology to Relieve the Strain and Shortage of Staff

These figures lay bare the need to address the shortage from all directions and all stakeholders—including your lab technology partners.

Technology to Relieve the Strain on Existing Lab Staff

To drive recruitment and retention, many experts are sharing ideas and adopted practices. CAP Today published a roundtable discussion with industry leaders talking about recruiting efforts within their own enterprises and communities. From financial incentives like sign-on bonuses to internships, improved educational funding, partnering with local schools and streamlining tracks to licensure, there are many strategies to consider across various stakeholders to bring more people to your team, and the frontlines.

But, have you explored how lab technology can make your existing staff more productive? Even more to the point, have you constructed technology solutions that free up staff to do the tasks needed most? A best-of-breed laboratory technology partner has solutions that reduce labor-intensive administrative tasks, enabling laboratory professionals to focus more on diagnostics and improved outcomes, less on orders and results management. As noted in the Medical Laboratory Observer:

About the author
Carolyn Woods Marketing Content Writer
Carolyn Woods
Marketing Content Writer

Carolyn has spent most of her career in B2B software marketing. Her background in healthcare marketing comes from many years working for a national blood provider. She is an advocate for healthcare cost transparency to U.S. consumers and is fascinated by applications for big data, artificial intelligence and personalized medicine.

A decade ago, a good portion of a laboratorian’s day was dedicated to necessary, manual tasks, such as sample archiving and system maintenance. But students don’t invest four to eight years learning the complexities of pathology to then sort thousands of tubes or troubleshoot equipment … Technology partners owe it to laboratory professionals to help them focus their expertise on what ignited their passion for the profession in the first place—the diagnostic part of their work.

At Sunquest, we couldn’t agree more. The systems you choose for laboratory operations should streamline processes across the diagnostic continuum, so laboratory staff can accomplish more without sacrificing quality, safety or job satisfaction. To illustrate using the systems we know best (our own), let’s look at some of the challenges that can be addressed with technology that enables the lab to do more with less.

  • Incomplete, duplicate or incorrect orders (manual or electronic)
  • Inefficient instrument / test routing
  • Test sharing inhibitors
  • Disjointed pathology workflow
  • Patient safety and lean lab processes
  • Lab turnover and retention
Incomplete, duplicate or incorrect orders (manual or electronic)

Challenges: Manual order processing and sample accessioning occupies staff time. Orders coming into the lab from disparate systems (physician EMR, other labs, enterprise EHRs/EMRs) often require additional manual processes before the lab can route, perform and result the test. Incomplete orders also may require lab personnel to intervene to capture missing information. This impacts turnaround time as well as lab productivity.

Solution: From the physician’s office to the lab and back again, lab testing can be fully automated and orders can be complete at accessioning. Sunquest Atlas™ solutions, supported by a powerful platform, enable your healthcare organization to extend configurable workflows and rules management capabilities to physician customers, nursing homes, patient service centers, reference labs and others — including those using electronic medical records (EMRs) and third-party middleware solutions. The platform helps orchestrate clean order capture that accommodates multi-site laboratory environments and user preferences for electronic orders and results delivery, including support for pooled testing workflow. Powerful multi-staged order workflow automation rules embedded within the platform help improve lab staff productivity by reducing time spent manually resolving missing or incomplete orders. Those same workflows allow labs to report partial results and critical or abnormal results per the preferences of individual physicians.

Inefficient instrument / test routing

Challenges: Lab personnel spends time duplicating data entry into separate LIS, blood bank and EHR systems. These activities do not add value and can actually increase the potential for confusion with test routing, tracking and turnaround. Mislabeling of specimens at order intake can cause incorrect resulting and possible patient misdiagnosis. Auto verification of results may also not be possible, as some technology does not accommodate unsolicited or repeat orders.

Solution: Samples can be labeled at the point of collection and routed automatically to the correct analyzers without manual handling by staff. Sunquest Collect™ expedites collection, supports draw order compliance, and prevents mislabeling with PPID and instrument-ready barcode labels. Through Sunquest Laboratory™ with Specimen Management Routing and Tracking (SMART), samples are received on an automated line and routed directly to the correct analyzers. Automatic data review provides historical views, delta checks and validation, while customizable rules for auto verification eliminate staff processing. These leaner workflows enable higher throughput and productivity despite staffing challenges.

Test sharing inhibitors

Challenges: Cooperating with other labs to share or batch tests is complex and work intensive to manage. Each lab is experiencing the same staffing shortages, and the efficiencies of sharing seem obvious. But the ROI (in a merger or consolidation)isn’t there to reconfigure or replace existing systems. No matter the scenario for test routing and sharing, too often specimens are processed at wrong laboratory locations, which may lead to non-payment of tests based on payer rules, not to mention the added volume impacting lab specialists. Further, labs run the risk of duplicate or missing (lost) orders that further impact patient safety and outcomes.

Solution: Independent or affiliated labs can leverage one another’s core competencies and benefit from efficiencies of scale while continuing to operate independently and on separate LISs. Sunquest Multi-Lab Networking℠ enables multiple labs to share tests, batch and route samples, and consolidate reports for ordering physicians. The system utilizes a shared barcode labeling scheme across the various points of collection for all the participating labs. It then seamlessly connects key data from each lab’s respective LIS to enable sample routing between the labs. Lab cooperation initiatives made possible by Sunquest Multi-Lab Networking reduce staff time and reference lab costs and create new opportunities for insourcing, all without disrupting the labs’ existing IT investments. See the gains three Maryland-based labs achieved through cooperation.

Disjointed pathology workflow

Challenges: Physicians call the AP lab asking for status, mainly because various workflow delays tie up lab staff. Instead of spending time on diagnostic science, the team has to process samples at accessioning, manually enter data, coordinate secondary consults, locate and attach ancillary reports and report out in multiple directions to clinicians and registries.

Solution: Technology can fully digitize the AP lab by linking systems, data, tools and devices into a single interface. Sunquest PowerPath® unites the pathology workflow and makes it configurable for the team’s specific needs. It eliminates relabeling at accessioning, displays case-centric daily worklists by pathologist or by specialty, automatically appends ancillary reports and images from devices, includes integrated dictation and image annotation tools, simplifies remote consult and sign-out, and delivers the complete, synoptic case report to the ordering physician. PowerPath frees up lab staff to work at the bench, eliminates manual tasks, reduces turnaround time, enables holistic analyses and delivers better service to clinicians. See how streamlined AP workflows have benefitted staff at TriCore and Provincial Health.

Patient safety and lean lab processes

Challenges: Human error is still the leading cause of pre- and post analytic laboratory mistakes, like incorrect patient, incorrect test, misidentified patient, misrouted test and incorrect collection container. Outside of the laboratory, siloed lab results paired with limited information about the patient can result in clinical errors that impact both cost and patient safety.

Solution: Automation leans processes, freeing up technologists to focus on higher value tasks. Also, automation from the point of collection to the recording of results in the EHR constitutes an end-to-end, electronic chain of custody for samples. Sunquest Laboratory with Sunquest Collect and Sunquest Blood Bank™ unites all of the lab disciplines to create a closed-loop, enterprise-level system that links the entire continuum of care. Clinicians get a full view of the patient’s medical record plus test results for truly integrated care. The results are leaner processes, faster turnaround times, less cost and a holistic, patient-centered view of laboratory results and care history.

Lab turnover and retention

Challenges: Vacancies go unfilled. The rest of the staff bears the brunt of the extra work. Applicants lack certifications and experience. It’s time-consuming to hire, and it’s even more expensive to train new hires. When staff is required to perform other job duties, some of which they may not be fully trained for, such as with a LIS or other technology, it can cause frustration and added stress to the employee and department. Not only does this impact other lab staff, but also it brings added risk to the patient from delays in results turnaround and delivery of quality information to the caregiver.

Solution: Technicians and technologists trained to be scientists, and they want to be at the bench performing the diagnostic work they trained for. The key to staff retention is happiness with the work and with the work environment. To get back to bench work, laboratories should apply lean principles to eliminate work that does not create value and to seek technology automation solutions that reduce waste and rework. Ultimately, lab leaders must realize that they can make a solid business case for becoming revenue-generating organizations and profit centers. The business case likely relies on technology investment to address the realities of the labor shortage by maximizing staff efficiency and minimizing turnover. Sunquest is here to help. With our wide-ranging technical and cross-discipline expertise, and equally deep business acumen, no one is better equipped than Sunquest to transform your lab to meet these challenges.

Looking Ahead

For those wondering about the long-term effects of COVID on the laboratory workforce, the short answer is it’s too soon to predict with certainty. One thing is quite likely: Expect increasing burnout from the enormous demands of an infectious disease pandemic on an already understaffed lab labor force. There are many stakeholders to involve in your plan to ensure staffing strength, now and for years to come—be sure to engage technology partners to ease strain and improve efficiency in day-to-day laboratory operations.

About the author
Carolyn Woods Marketing Content Writer
Carolyn Woods
Marketing Content Writer

Carolyn has spent most of her career in B2B software marketing. Her background in healthcare marketing comes from many years working for a national blood provider. She is an advocate for healthcare cost transparency to U.S. consumers and is fascinated by applications for big data, artificial intelligence and personalized medicine.

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