As rising test volumes and increasing demands continue to flood clinical labs, the right automation solutions -- or lack thereof -- can make all the difference in the lab's profitability.
Fortunately, an ever-evolving platform of automation features can serve as the solution. Today's labs are increasingly turning to more advanced levels of automation to drive efficiency, reduce errors and absorb higher workloads without adding staff.
As countless labs have already learned, the right automation solutions -- at the right time -- can transform large test volumes into standardized jobs that are organized, efficient and more cost-effective than their manually-processed counterparts. Time-consuming manual steps are virtually eliminated, leading to better turnaround time, more capacity, higher productivity and, potentially, fewer errors.
Pull back the layers of clinical lab automation and you'll quickly discover the advanced features that are making the largest improvements in efficiency.
Dynamic Inlets Drive Pre-Analytical Efficiency
Although dynamic inlets aren't brand new, they are an important piece of the automation puzzle. These smart devices help labs load and transfer mixed tube types from specialized racks to individual tube holders destined for specific analytical instruments. They enable users to prioritize STAT samples over routine samples, bypass the centrifuge for samples that have been pre-spun, and automatically remap tubes to the stockyard for archiving. What was done manually in the past, like prioritizing STAT samples, is now automated.
Unlike previous inlets, dynamic inlets enable labs to pre-sort, prioritize STAT samples and load a variety of rack types, based on their unique needs. This helps ensure flexibility and control, which drives a fast and consistent turnaround time.
Chemistry Connectivity Increases Analytical Speed and Capacity
Today's overburdened labs continually seek new ways to do more tests with fewer instruments; every step toward greater analytical speed, capacity and scalability is a step in the right direction.
Many labs have found help in automation platforms that connect to modular clinical chemistry instruments. This flexibility enables labs to connect analyzers that are the best fit for their current workflow requirements today, while offering the ability to add to their analytical capacity tomorrow.
Modularity helps labs match the speed of their automation track to the speed of their instrument connections. For example, if a lab has a very fast automation lane but slower instruments, the lab would need to connect several instruments to keep up with the throughput of tubes coming off the track.
Without this precision, the lab's processing speed is only as fast as its slowest component. But with the right automation and analytical platforms, labs can feed the instruments at the proper speed and ensure consistent speed of movement throughout the testing process.
Larger Stockyards Increase Post-Analytical Storage Capacity
Today's laboratories also have access to larger-capacity stockyards without having to increase the footprint in the lab. Tubes are retrievable one by one to improve turnaround time while maintaining a stable temperature of the other tubes in the rack.
After analysis, completed samples arrive at the refrigerated (or ambient) stockyard and are unloaded from the sample carriers one at a time and placed onto racks. Computer-controlled placement of samples within the stockyard ensures that each sample's location is mapped and sample life is monitored automatically. Samples recalled from the stockyard can automatically return to the automation line without any manual intervention for reflex or rerun tests.
A larger stockyard means samples can be stored for a longer timeframe -- making them ideal for labs that often need to perform reflex or rerun tests a day or two later. This saves time and eliminates the need for technicians to visit the offline storage room and try to locate specific samples among an entire week's worth of tubes.
Automation advancements continue to evolve as fast at the clinical laboratories they serve. On the horizon are several innovations that will take laboratory efficiency even further.
Faster Automation Speed
Up and coming automation systems promise speeds that are roughly three times faster than existing systems. Once delivered, this increased speed will enable labs to add more high-speed analytical modules and increase their overall throughput -- all without expanding their automation footprint.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology
Future automation systems will also take sample rack management to a new level with RFID technology. With RFID -- a faster technology than standard barcode readers -- labels are read more quickly, enabling them to speed through the track and reach the analyzers in less time. With RFID technology, automation systems also have fewer moving parts and, therefore, less maintenance.
Consolidation of Testing Disciplines
In addition, future automation solutions will be built to accommodate all types of disciplines -- chemistry, immunochemistry, hematology, coagulation and urinalysis. For the first time, labs can attain a true total lab automation system that has the speed and capacity to handle all testing types in one platform with a single point of entry without compromising the turnaround time of any of the disciplines.
Putting It All Together
This innovative technology helps labs deliver accurate results in a timely fashion, so physicians can make the best clinical decisions for patients. Automation helps decrease turnaround time and process more samples using fewer resources.
Jorge Lana is senior marketing manager, Automation, Beckman Coulter.