Microbiology labs turn to automation… but is automation alone enough?

Today’s Microbiology labs are under immense pressure to produce fast, accurate results despite an increasing volume of work. Labs are searching for ways to improve operational efficiency, drive quality for optimal clinical outcomes, and improve the lab’s overall financial position. To achieve these goals, labs are turning to vendor partners for automation and efficiency solutions.

Why is automation important?

Automating small yet vitally important tasks can have a huge impact on lab productivity and quality. For example, lab technicians often streak approximately 500 agar plates a day, a process that is laborious. It is also inconsistent, due to variability introduced by manual techniques and users. Inconsistent streaking technique and an inability to isolate microbial colonies can impact downstream processes, delaying the critical time-to-result for patient management by several hours. Automated solutions such as plate streakers offer standardization, improve productivity (up to 1,000 plates/day), and shorten time-to-results. Similarly, automated Gram staining devices can save time, deliver reproducible results, and decrease reagent usage. Microbiologists freed from these labor-intensive manual processes can focus on more important tasks such as interpretation of results. Furthermore, from the financial perspective, an automated solution’s return on investment (ROI) is most likely achieved within one to two years of implementation.

Augmenting automation

Adding automation alone is often not enough to deliver the desired improvements to efficiency, nor can it alone solve problems such as workflow bottlenecks. Therefore, the quest for efficiency should start by critically analyzing lab work processes. Typically, this is best done by an independent team or a third-party consultant(s) for objective evaluation. The process usually begins with the efficiency experts first observing and documenting current lab processes. Then, through a data-driven process, they can create a specific roadmap for improvement that is customized for each lab.

Performance optimization is often achieved using familiar efficiency concepts such as Lean Six Sigma and other rapid improvement methodologies that result in the elimination of non-value added activities, a reduction in errors, and an alignment of resources to workload. By identifying the gaps in the value-stream mapping process, areas where automation can further improve productivity and quality are identified.

To fully realize the benefits of improved lab efficiencies, actionable information flow from the lab to the physician must be optimized. An effective LIS with appropriate middleware simplifies network connectivity as well as workflow management and information processing for faster, more informed decision making. The combination of laboratory workflow optimization, automation, and information management results in improved performance through the release of more resource capacity, better utilization, and improved quality.

The financial and quality pressures that face Microbiology labs today are forcing decision makers to seek out ways to improve efficiency in order to meet the current and growing demand for testing. Automation certainly represents an opportunity for improvement for Microbiology labs, but we lab leaders should also consider making additional changes to improve both workflow and the transfer of information. By taking all of these steps together, labs can see significant improvements in efficiency, productivity, and overall financial performance.

Kesava Nagar-Anthal, PhD, is Director of Marketing for bioMárieux Performance Solutions.