When staffing is a challenge, a laboratory information system can help close the gaps
In March 2022, Duane Clark, Lab Technology Sales Specialist at McKesson Medical-Surgical, co-presented a webinar with two close colleagues: Matt Modleski, Executive Vice President, Business Development, at LIS maker Orchard Software; and Tony Dilella, Laboratory Equipment Sales Specialist at McKesson Medical-Surgical. What follows is synopsis of that discussion—"Offset Staff Shortages Through LIS Integration"—with special attention paid to the ways a laboratory information system can help any lab become more efficient.
In medical laboratories everywhere, a look at the numbers tells the story. In a field that has struggled with staffing shortages for years, things are only getting worse.
A recent national survey of medical laboratories by the American Society for Clinical Pathology revealed vacancy rates of between 5% and 10%, depending on the region. (In the Central Southwest, for example, the vacancy rate in 2020 was 5.3%, while in the Central Northeast, it was 10.2%.1)
Meanwhile, the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the field is expected to expand by 7% between now and 2031.2
Between staff burnout, retirements, too few new graduates and increased demand for workers to handle continued respiratory testing, the pressure on the profession is rising by the day.
So what can organizations do to help close the staffing gap beyond looking for new workers who may not exist? One answer is to focus on improving workflow efficiencies, something any lab can do with a laboratory information system (LIS).
A key solution for collecting and managing data at all stages of testing and processing, LIS options have become indispensable to the modern laboratory environment. The problem is that most laboratories don't use their LIS to its full capability. Though they lean on the system for certain important functions, they tend to miss out on automating manual tasks, which only happens when your LIS has become fully integrated.3
Here's a look at the advantages organizations often see when their laboratory information system becomes integrated with other clinical systems, and some thoughts on how they might leverage common LIS tools to address issues associated with inadequate staffing.
Automation of orders and results
Perhaps the most important function of the integrated LIS is to automate test ordering and the return of test results.
When your LIS connects to your patient's electronic health record (EHR), any order for a test submitted by a clinician instantly reaches the laboratory for processing. And the reverse is also true: As soon as laboratory testing is complete, the results flow straight into each patient's chart.
By reducing a busy staff's reliance on manual processes — like faxing and data entry, for example — integration can free them up to focus on other things.
It can also improve turnaround times, so providers can make faster clinical decisions. Patients get the care they need sooner than they would otherwise, which can make a positive impact on downstream healthcare costs.
Another key feature of a fully integrated LIS is the autoverification of test results: With just a few keystrokes, laboratory staff could scratch another job off their to-do list and move on to the kind of work only they can do.
The primary benefit of autoverification has to do with time savings, of course. A normal test might take about two minutes to manually verify and report, while automation can bring that down to maybe 30 seconds or less.3
Extrapolate those savings for any given day and then multiply them across an entire month or year, and that not only adds up very quickly, it can potentially drive serious cost savings as well.
Finally, autoverification can reduce the chances that human error might result in a miss that affects patient safety. Busy staff under pressure to produce understandably make mistakes on occasion. Autoverification is one way to make sure those errors don't occur when patient care quality is at stake.
Quality control and assurance
When it comes to quality control (QC), an integrated LIS can make sure a laboratory is ready for inspection no matter when it happens.
A laboratory information system allows for the tracking of qualitative and quantitative QC metrics with Levey-Jennings charts and Westgard rules, and it also allows inspectors to view QC graphs directly on a computer screen.4
As it conducts weekly QC reviews, the LIS can automatically handle documentation.
Then there's quality assurance and assessment, for which an integrated LIS can standardize comments for unacceptable specimens and rejected tests. It can also create error reports with corrective action comments (by provider), track remedial action reports and track turnaround time (TAT) for time-sensitive tests.
An integrated LIS also allows a laboratory to create built-in rule sets to standardize workflows to reduce potential errors. Among the common features available in the typical system: auto-route testing based on insurance requirements, the ability to print the exact number of labels needed, automated reflex to secondary tests based on the results of primary tests and the autoverification of "normal" results.
Laboratory managers can also make sure that they never release results without acceptable QC.
By automatically capturing electronic quality data, laboratory information systems eliminate the need for paper that might otherwise be lost in a filing cabinet anyway.
Staff, for their part, don't have to spend time looking for random supporting documentation and can instead feel confident they can take care of everything as they go about their daily routines.
Tracking samples and data mining
Though every lab is understandably concerned about ensuring top-notch quality control, maintaining a well-documented audit trail is also usually high on the priority list.
The good news? With an integrated LIS, the tools you need to organize and track laboratory samples across the testing continuum are all there and ready to go.
Lastly, labs can find similar benefits in the realm of data mining and analytics. With an integrated LIS, they can access the data that lives within their systems instantly whenever it's needed, whether it's to help the laboratory achieve its quality goals, promote population health management or help close care gaps to improve patient outcomes.
With automated reporting set up to track laboratory metrics on a regular basis, organizations can monitor everything from TAT to staff productivity. And chances are they'll like what they see because the people who would normally be producing such reports should have time to focus on other work instead.
LIS as a potential 'force multiplier'
In the end, with an integrated LIS, laboratories could get what amounts to a force multiplier. By automating the processes that slow technicians down, the system makes it possible for labs to produce at a level that normally would require a much larger staff.
And as for the laboratory team itself? For them, an LIS working at full throttle means they can become more effective. It also makes their jobs more interesting by reducing their workloads and the need for repetitive tasks.3
Such a system can mean better employee satisfaction, which in turn can mean better employee retention.
The big picture, when all is said and done, and the most important reason for an integrated LIS: With happier staff, your lab does better work, and the patients your lab serves are the beneficiaries of better care.
Watch the full webinar or contact us for more information.
3: Webinar: View Offset Staff Shortages through LIS Integration-20220330 1700-1. https://bit.ly/3YwbD4l
4: https://www.westgard.com/lesson12.htm. (was 1)