While COVID testing is likely here to stay for the long term, labs are starting to feel the pinch of reduced testing revenue. To solve that problem and maintain or increase market share, labs should ensure their outreach program is meeting the needs of current customers and has the flexibility to appeal to new ones.
Whether your lab is in a hospital, fully independent, or specializes in one clinical area, outreach should play an important role in your lab’s revenue strategy. What makes a provider, and sometimes the patients themselves, choose a lab? Convenience. A lab’s processes and outward-facing information should be so simple and straightforward that the potential customer doesn’t think twice about making the choice.
Providers and staff across the industry are experiencing severe burnout after more than 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lab staff are undoubtedly feeling fatigue as well. Fighting to send an order or receive results from a laboratory is another burden that no one has the time to hassle with. If it is difficult for the customer to send the lab an order, it’s likely that lab may lose the customer.
Building a laboratory outreach program
When building a competitive outreach program for a lab, the first goal in sight is to ensure that the processes for working with your laboratory will give you a competitive advantage. Yes, your tests need to be properly conducted, and your accuracy must be above question, but working with a laboratory should not add to the workflow of providers or their staff. How can this be accomplished? Through technology.
If your outreach program is competitive, requisitions should not be on paper. A fast-food hamburger is $2, and the process to order one is digital from beginning to end. Yet, in some laboratories where pathology tests can cost of hundreds of dollars, the order is still handled on paper. This makes no sense. Paper orders impact the quality of the order when they come with missing information, bad data, or just poor handwriting.
Aside from the impact on the accuracy of paper and manual processes, labs with paper processes are severely hindered in their ability to scale their outreach program and remain competitive in crowded markets.
To support the needs of the outreach program, laboratories must surround their customers with a suite of applications beyond the laboratory information system (LIS) or electronic health record (EHR). First, they require a robust physician connectivity package. When a medical practice is brought on as a new customer of the lab, delays in managing the connection allow time for that office to reconsider its decision.
For one west coast lab, the accessioners’ desks were drowning in paper orders, making the lab unable to scale its outreach to take on new clients. Prior to the decision to make a technology upgrade, the lab was receiving more than 80% of its orders on paper. The process was manual and slow, making it so that order errors had to be corrected, costing precious staff time.
The lab’s goal is to go from 80% of its orders being on paper to under 20% within the next twelve months. This ambitious goal was set, despite the lab’s tandem objective of scaling operations and outreach to take on new customers. How will the lab do it? Through technology.
The first step for a lab taking on a new customer is to connect to the customer’s EMR very quickly. The previously referenced west coast lab adopted an interface solution, which provided one central point of management for all orders and results. This streamlined processes for both the lab and the customer, simplifying the workflows on both ends. This workflow efficiency step will be one of the main strategies in achieving the goal of having less than 20% of orders on paper.
IT functions for outreach program
If a lab’s outreach program has centralized applications that surround the LIS/EHR, they should be tailored to meet the needs of individual customers. Some of the IT functions needed for a good outreach program include:
- Flexibility in billing capabilities, so they are compatible across customers’ unique systems.
- Vendor agnosticism, so a lab can quickly connect to clients for orders and results, regardless of the EMR vendor.
- A strong partnership with the hospital’s IT support team.
- Service-level agreements in place with the contracting and compliance departments whenever possible, so any new clients requiring contracts or business associate agreements are turned around in a timely manner.
Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the need for connectivity in the lab on an unprecedented scale. These past few years have likely convinced labs of the need to invest in electronic connectivity to their customers. Labs that made technology investments during the pandemic were able to scale their testing and take on more clients. Those same labs can move into testing for more infectious diseases as well.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is not slowing down. If labs still haven’t invested in enhanced connectivity, now is the time.
Additional connectivity to be competitive
It has been said repeatedly that labs must get out of paper ordering and go digital. While this is true, it’s also not enough. To be competitive when doing outreach as a lab, that connectivity should go beyond just an interface for orders and results.
A good test of the connectivity between the lab and customer is the patient registration process. The lab’s suite of applications should be able to capture payer information, patient demographics, and physician codes. If the EMR doesn’t allow labs to ask questions when a lab order is added to the system, the deficiency should be made up for with a lab product.
Labs cannot rely on the physician practices, manual processes, or the orders/results interface to retrieve accurate patient insurance information. This is especially true for labs with large, varied client bases because there are several hundred EMR vendors. This lack of consistency makes verifying insurance a big challenge for laboratories.
Labs need to make managing insurance and test-compendium mapping simple. The suite of applications the labs use for connectivity should provide the ability to offer bridging capabilities to a practice’s EMR. This will allow a lab to manage, maintain, and cross-reference information, such as insurance codes, test codes, and LOINC codes, while also providing on-demand mapping from third-party applications.
Automating these insurance processes eliminates the laborious manual cross-referencing, callbacks, and faxes to the physician’s office to correct insurance information, so the lab can receive payment.
On the other side, physicians want results in multiple formats. For labs to be competitive, they should be able to easily deliver the results in whatever format their customers ask for.
A common functionality request is for labs to copy physicians on the lab results ordered by another treating physician treating a patient. Physicians also expect labs to have break-the-glass capability on results delivery, allowing those physicians to quickly gain access to restricted results data. Additionally, with the increasing prevalence of value-based care, physicians often request a longitudinal view of patient results for an isolated condition, allowing them to see a history of the results for the patient, but not all the tests that are unrelated to the diagnosis.
There are several flexibility offerings from vendors of interface products that labs must consider when evaluating what connectivity to offer their customers. First, labs need the ability to store patients’ demographic information, so it can be sent to and from various entities. Second, it is essential to be able to pass orders from the EHR to the LIS or to any downstream reference laboratory. In addition to passing orders downstream, labs should be able to share results with any downstream entity needing them, including reporting to state agencies, and providing results to both providers and patients. Ideally, labs should offer electronic portals for both clinicians and their patients. And finally, labs should consider building rules-based routing, load balancing and mapping tools for insurance and test codes.
The lab’s connectivity package ideally also should include the ability to print laboratory-branded requisitions at the medical practice as soon as the electronic EMR order is sent. This allows the processing staff to always know where to find information on the requisitions. Inconsistency in requisitions is one of the number one reasons for missed tests and missed test information. Specimen-ready labels reduce mislabeling of specimens and save time for the practice and laboratory staff.
Now is the time for labs to invest in outreach through technology. Not only can increased connectivity help labs solve reimbursement challenges with tools for clean orders, but they can increase their market share and return on investment by making lab ordering and test resulting easy for their customers.