While clinical laboratories are vital to the diagnostic industry, they are facing multiple challenges that will require increased automation in order for them to remain competitive. But they must not go about the process of implementation haphazardly without a proper work flow analysis, or they may see no real improvements, according to health care market research publisher Kalorama Information’s "Lab Automation Markets, 2nd Edition (Systems, Key Companies, Forecasts and Trends)."
The report forecasts $5.35 billion in sales of clinical lab automation hardware and software in 2010, with growth through 2014 estimated at about 7%.
A number of issues are challenging the ability of clinical labs to remain competitive. These challenges include the reduction of government reimbursement rates for lab tests, cost-restraint measures established by the managed care industry, increased government regulations, growing demand for testing as the population ages, a diminishing labor pool, and increasingly sophisticated tests that produce greater amounts of data.
In order to survive in the future, labs will need to run more tests, test in fewer sites, operate with less equipment, maintain lower operating costs, and hire less skilled labor. How can this task be achieved? According to Kalorama, labs will need to harness additional automation.
"Lab automation has moved from a should to a must," notes Bruce Carlson, publisher of Kalorama Information. "In particular the non-value-added steps, including such processes as sorting tubes, decapping, centrifugation, loading analyzers, and prepping and sorting materials for storage, are ideal targets for automation."
The report notes that a typical mid-size to large lab in the US processes up to 3,000 tests per day. With automation using robotics, a lab can increase its test volume by 20%, reduce sample turnaround times by 11%, and save about $100,000 in staff salaries.
In order for lab managers to determine the need and potential benefits of automation, they must undertake a detailed analysis of the current, pre-automation, laboratory processes. Such work flow analyses demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the existing process so that an informed decision can be made as to whether automation will lead to a real improvement. Since most labs are too small to warrant total lab automation and opting for modular systems instead, it is essential to understand which processes will benefit the most from automation. Any system must be flexible, standardized and fully integrated.