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Labs Can Thrive in the Face of Challenges

How labs can address staff shortages, time crunches and operational standardization.

4 min read


The modern lab plays a significant role in health care but is limited by three challenges — turnaround time, clinical and operational standardization, and staff shortages.

The CDC estimates that 70% of medical decisions are based on laboratory test results. Because timing is critical, delays in test results can have a negative impact on patient care and experience, and they account for 80% of complaints made to labs. Labs that are underperforming on turnaround time also suffer from:

  • Lower throughput and capacity
  • Higher organizational costs due to longer patient stays in the ED, ICU or OR
  • Staff performing more manual processes, which expends additional time and effort and prevents lab professionals from performing at their highest levels of expertise.

Labs are also under pressure to achieve clinical and operational standardization. Clinical standardization ensures that test measurements are accurate and reliable, with analytical precision across all labs. It also plays a crucial role in enabling large health systems to establish standardized institutional clinical pathways across various disease states and care continuums. By implementing standardized protocols, procedures and best practices, health systems can ensure consistent and high-quality care delivery throughout their network of facilities.

Meanwhile, operational standardization of reagents, assays and supplies streamlines access to materials and makes inventory management more predictable.

Shortcomings in standardization mean the lab will be less efficient and will face higher costs due to unnecessary variations and suboptimal resource allocation. They also impede data exchange and interoperability, making it more difficult for labs to share test results, integrate with electronic health records and exchange other health information in real time.

As labs strive for faster turnaround time and greater standardization, they are limited by the most significant challenge – staff shortages. Lab staffing shortages have long been a problem and were exacerbated by the pandemic. It is estimated that labs are short 20,000 to 25,000 laboratory technologists nationwide. This limits labs’ efforts to improve patient care, capacity, workflow and standardization.

Boosting accuracy, efficiency

Fortunately, best practices and cutting-edge equipment can help today’s labs perform at their highest level and improve both performance and patient care. For example, labs can focus on a variety of areas to meet standardization goals, including standardizing test menus; technology platforms and instrumentation; protocols and procedures; and reagents, assays and consumables.

They can improve turnaround time by optimizing staff training workloads and workflow and by reconfiguring lab equipment and supplies to best support their procedures. Lean and Six Sigma methodologies can reduce turnaround times by eliminating waste, reducing errors, standardizing processes and promoting continuous improvement.

These steps toward efficiency gains will also help address staff shortages and can be bolstered by offering competitive packages, creating a collaborative work environment, and emphasizing career growth opportunities and mentorship programs.

Additionally, advanced automated equipment can help lab professionals with all of these challenges. For example, it can speed turnaround time by automating tasks like labeling, sample sorting, centrifugation, analysis, result entry, report verification and delivery. Dashboards and reports make it easier to monitor and improve processes and perform quality control. They also provide auto-verification of test results.

Automated solutions support clinical and operational standardization efforts by streamlining routine maintenance, quality control, advanced sample handling and data analysis. Finally, automation reduces manual processes, mitigating the effects of staff shortages.

By leveraging best practices and new technologies, labs can realize a variety of operational and financial gains. They will see:

  • Well established clinical pathways across disease states
  • Faster patient diagnosis and treatment
  • Shorter patient stays in the ED, ICU and OR
  • More accurate and reliable measurements
  • Easier inventory management and resource allocation
  • More efficient workflows and easier data exchange
  • Higher capacity and reimbursement
  • Fewer manual tasks performed by staff, allowing them to perform at their highest levels of expertise.

The global clinical laboratory market is projected to grow 74% between 2019 and 2027, reaching $404 billion, according to Transparency Market Research.4 As labs work to secure a greater foothold in this growing market, it is crucial for lab directors to embrace best practices and cutting-edge technology to ensure optimal performance. Lab directors play a pivotal role in not only implementing advanced technologies but also in effectively stratifying physicians’ demands based on urgency and clinical necessity.

This strategic approach enables labs to allocate resources efficiently, prioritize critical testing needs, and deliver high-quality results to the organizations and patients that depend on them. By effectively implementing technological advancements and prioritizing physicians’ demands, lab directors can contribute substantially to the overall success of their labs and enhance patient care outcomes.