Enhancing the laboratorian's role through automation

Oct. 1, 2008


hile originally viewed by many as expensive,
impersonal, and potentially career-threatening, automation has proved to
be a valuable asset to laboratory professionals. Automation can help
laboratories increase capacity and result quality in spite of a shortage
of skilled professionals. These benefits have curried favor with
laboratorians, resulting in improved morale and the ability for the
laboratory to meet workload and quality demands.

Current automation trends focus on specimen
processing and single-platform instrumentation in immunology and other
departments, as laboratorians respond to the demands placed on the
healthcare industry by the aging baby-boomer population. Laboratories
will not only need to effectively increase their capacity but also
ensure they have a sufficient supply of skilled lab personnel.

“There are very few reports of laboratories
reducing staff following automation implementations,” explains American
Society for Clinical Laboratory Science Executive Vice President Elissa
Passiment. “Instead, the automation allows laboratory scientists and
technicians to turn their attention to new tasks, tests, and services.
The goal during this time of personnel shortage is not to lose any of
these professionals because their medical knowledge is irreplaceable.
That said, new automation increases the need for continuing education.”

Education — both scientific and direct experience
— is the crucial element that underpins the successful utilization of
automation technology. For laboratory professionals currently in the
field, this requires a commitment to learning that exceeds the training
provided by equipment manufacturers. Learning the scientific theory
behind specific equipment is essential to thoroughly understand the
machine's capabilities and how to leverage those capabilities now and in
the future.

“You should not run the test without
understanding the science behind the instrumentation,” adds Passiment.
To illustrate this point, she explains that many laboratories have not
introduced PCR into their environments. If automation equipment that
performs PCR is implemented, however, then laboratory professionals
using it need to understand the complicated science behind it to
maximize the equipment's use and effectiveness. This also enables
laboratorians to understand how an instrument's utilization can be
expanded to grow with the laboratory's needs.

Proficient in theory, clinical laboratory
students face a different challenge regarding automation — hands-on
experience. “It is extremely difficult for schools to obtain the
equipment students will use once they are in the field. That is why
initiatives like Labs Are Vital's Instrument Donation Program are
critically important. It is extremely valuable in helping properly
prepare students for the work they will perform,” says Passiment.

Automation positively benefits the laboratory in
multiple ways — staffing, capacity, and efficiency. It is an innovation
that enhances laboratory professionals' roles, as their medical
expertise is irreplaceable. “Automation and good instrumentation have
always served laboratory professionals well,” concludes Passiment.

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