How lab automation can supercharge diagnostic laboratories

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With diagnostic testing facing unprecedented demand, automation in diagnostic laboratories is a cost-effective and accessible solution to increase performance.

A paradigm shift for diagnostic laboratories

The pandemic has created a new reality, and led to the rapid transformation of key industries across the whole economy. The diagnostics sector has not been immune from confronting drastic changes in circumstances, expectations and operational processes.

Within diagnostic labs, the need for fast, efficient, and accurate testing is pressing. Working to meet huge demand in diagnostic testing, has seen labs stretched to maximum capacity, with workforces grappling with significant operational challenges.

The pandemic has also underscored the crucial link between diagnostics and public health, and the importance of diagnostic labs being dynamic and agile enough to respond to changing circumstances.

New expectations and pressures in diagnostic labs

As scientists contend with the challenges of Covid-19 variants, there is significant pressure on labs for high capacity and reliable diagnostic testing to meet non-covid diagnostic testing demands. High-profile incidents, such as the Wolverhampton Covid-19 testing lab where 43,000 people were given incorrect test results, have highlighted both the pressure and importance of reliability when it comes to Covid-19 testing.

There is also increasing pressure on research and development teams to innovate, all the while the wider sector grapples with pandemic-induced challenges, such as upscaling lab capacity, whilst competing for a specialised pool of workers and ensuring reliable diagnostic supplies.

This comes at a time when the diagnostics sector is acutely understaffed. Recent research from Automata has uncovered how 95% of lab managers polled consider staff shortages to be a major concern. It also found that exhaustion and low staff morale was an endemic issue across the sector.

95% of lab managers consider staff shortages ‘a major concern’

In practice, workforce shortages mean that valuable time is often spent performing necessary, but laborious tasks, and consequently, activities outside the day-to-day focus of the laboratory simply do not receive the attention that is required. Not only does this create time pressures for staff, but it also has serious ramifications for innovation.

Ensuring quality lab diagnostics

Automating diagnostic laboratories

Automata’s research also revealed diagnostic and diagnostic lab managers’ confidence in a cost effective and accessible solution to relieve pressures, and enable creativity.

In most industries, automation is used as a catch-all term, encompassing almost all advanced technological solutions. However, automation is misunderstood. Too many perceive automation to consist of costly and inaccessible robotics.

At its core automation fundamentally simplifies laboratory processes and empowers humans. Automation in diagnostic is cost effective for diagnostic labs, and that’s before the cost savings of increased workforce efficiencies, and streamlined processes, are realised. It creates opportunities for diagnostic labs, of all shapes and sizes, to deliver high-quality clinical results at pace. Finally, it offers an opportunity to propel diagnostics firmly into the 21st century, facilitating the pursuit of innovation and creativity.

How automation can supercharge laboratory diagnostics

Automation allows for diagnostic testing capacity to be drastically upscaled. diagnostic and diagnostic lab managers, polled in Automata’s research, believe that automation offers significant opportunities to relieve existing pressures and scale up capacity.

Automating diagnostic lab processes relieves humans of repetitive, and low-calibre, processes, enabling researchers, scientists, and diagnostic technicians to perform more complex and demanding tasks and critical thinking. In diagnostic laboratories, workflow processes can be transformed by automating simple, but crucial, tasks such as pipetting or barcode scanning. Time pressures in diagnostic testing can be coupled with laborious manual processes. In some diagnostic labs, body fluid samples are handled by at least 10 people – precipitating a convoluted workflow with a high likelihood of human error, inefficiency, and biohazard risks.

There is significant potential for automation to supercharge workflow processes and enable researchers and sciences to achieve greater efficiencies and innovation. Recent research by Automata uncovered that one in two lab managers, working in diagnostics and diagnostic labs, feel that implementing innovation is a commonly experienced challenge in the lab. Autonomous lab processes empower laboratory environments to deliver reliable results at pace, reducing time-to-market for life-changing therapeutics and facilitating real-world impacts for patients.

Laboratory workflow automation in pathology

While partial automation – which integrates automated lab equipment into standalone lab processes – can catalyse testing speed and efficiency, laboratory workflow automation reaches far beyond this. Laboratory workflow automation links together multiple lab stations and modular pods, to automate an entire series of workflow systems – from automated lab equipment (hardware), lab automation software, and human expertise.

Laboratory workflow automation links multiple lab stations and modular pods, to automate entire workflow systems

This ensures the benefits of automation, such as quality, efficiency and human error are improved holistically throughout laboratory diagnostics.

Even on a practical level, laboratory workflow automation is also far safer for the workforce. In one lab, the number of biohazard exposure events reduced from over 2,500 per month to just under 6 after adopting automated lab equipment. It also reduces the chances of patient misdiagnosis and cross-contamination.

The diagnostics sector has overcome unprecedented challenges through innovation. Moving forward, we must ensure that our scientific capabilities are as robust as possible. Embracing cutting-edge automation in diagnostic laboratories will not only deliver more reliable, and timely, diagnostic testing for patients, but is key to ensuring the UK remains a global leader in scientific ingenuity. With diagnostic testing operating under increased pressure, it’s an opportunity the sector can’t afford to miss.

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