Making Lemonade from Lemons: Our Laboratory Lives after COVID-19

Laboratorians struggled through 2020 but successfully navigated a difficult situation while maintaining and improving our high-quality service to our patients. By laboratorian, I mean all of us—medical, public health, research, industry, etc.—because, across all sectors, anyone working in a laboratory (our family) was pushed to the limits to do more with less, work harder with fewer people, provide results with challenging procedure standard, and save lives while risking our own. It is quite easy to go into a clinical laboratory that is providing COVID-19 testing and find heroes that were there before, excelled during this pandemic, and will be there tomorrow. But there were heroes in every laboratory. Our public health laboratorians spent tireless hours trying to provide testing, coordinate testing, disseminate information, and relay the best current epidemiology to leadership to keep the country running. Our research laboratorians developed and delivered data, new information, novel biology, and potential interventions for the novel coronavirus. Our industry laboratorians were crucial components to vaccine development and delivery. And, unlike most of the country, our laboratorians were not able to “work from home” because, well, there are laws against having certain things in your house that might escape and kill your neighbors. It is good to be essential, but it has it pain points. Our laboratorians have felt that pain by still commuting to their benches to get the work done every day. But they did it and did it well! And what is often forgotten is that every single one of these laboratorians already had a “day job” in delivering a full catalog of laboratory-based services to which they added a successful COVID-19 response. If you see a laboratorian after you read this blog, you should want to hug them and say thank you.

Vaccination is spreading and will overtake and conquer this virus in parallel with our continued social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing. In the background, testing will continue and will drive how our leaders make decisions more than anything else. We can see an end to this bedlam and are now facing, perhaps, one of the most difficult questions we have ever faced as a global laboratory community: “What do we do now?”

Our pathologists, long awaiting the day when digital telepathology was the norm, were thrust headfirst into that practice during the pandemic under emergency conditions. Many of them had already started (sometimes in a big way) but others were pushing glass routinely. Many of us have leapfrogged to a place from which we cannot return. We need to evaluate the virtual practice of the past year to determine the error rates and see if it is comparable (or better) than our routine glass slide practice. Is eBay or LetGo going to be overwhelmed with microscopes while high resolution monitors go into backorder? We must still contend with the requirement of “presence” and the moniker of “CLIA”, which was temporarily separated from a pathologist’s role in care during the pandemic. These new digital practices may address our long-standing workforce shortages. Working from home was not a possibility but a requirement for much of the last year. Care continued and work was done. What evidence would argue that working in an office is “better” than working from home when we consider the practice of pathologists? The financial implications of cost per square foot of overhead when taking up space in an academic medical facility is more than sufficient for a CFO to argue that pathologists working from home is great. But this is assuming that the workstation, the workflow, and the outputs were optimized. Not all pathology laboratories went fully digital and there was a great deal of slide shipping/couriering. On the other side of this pandemic, much like the 6 to 10 different platforms found in a clinical lab to perform a COVID-19 test, we will find that many practices are not sustainable, can be replaced and optimized, and will require more upheaval and pivot from our pathologists. To clarify, before COVID-19, pathologists practiced basically the same anywhere in the world; namely, review of glass slides in slide folders with a connected case file. During COVID-19, a whole new set of options emerged for how we would do that routine work that were uncontrolled and ad hoc. Now on the other side, we must separate the practices that are best for patient care from those that got the work done in a crisis to find our way forward. If the optimal model is (and I am not saying that it is) digital telepathology from anywhere, we must work hard to define “anywhere” for the sake of our patient’s care and safety. Monitor or other devices standards, which have long been the bane of the telepathology community, are still not standards. CLIA is specific about what constitutes a laboratory and its four walls. Accreditation teams do not inspect people’s home offices. On the other side of this pandemic, how do we find a common, best practice in a virtual age? We must return to a state of highest possible quality for our patients without giving up the advances we made in this crisis.

I once wrote up a laboratory revision plan for a firm that had 9 hospitals. Each had its own pathology laboratory employing 1 to 3 pathologist and similar staff for grossing, histology, and admin. Each laboratory had a volume of less than 3000 samples per year (and referred complex cases to a tertiary care center out of network). Based on our revision, in formalin concentration and recycling alone, the system would save $100,000. With a centralized laboratory (easily capable of handling 30,000 samples per year) and a digital pathology strategy, the work could be done by half the number of pathologists. Most importantly, the reagent/supply savings from having one laboratory rather than 9 was astronomical. The bottom line was an increase in revenue of nearly $1,000,000 with a cost savings of more than 75%. The key element of this plan that is important here is the digital telepathology component that reduces the number of staff needed and the office space needed which, at the time of the revision proposal, was “innovative” but thought too new to be reasonable. COVID-19 has tested that one aspect of the model and found it to be more than reasonable. More importantly, laboratory management and organizational leadership has had to take a hard look at costs, cost centers, and fixed expenses in such a way that the model above now becomes not lucrative but essential to staying in operation. We are trained in the laboratory to always be working on quality improvement, but COVID-19 has pushed us to always be working on fiscal improvement as well.

As we return to our “new normal” after COVID-19, the lessons we learned from this pandemic are going to translate into mergers, acquisitions, consolidations, closings, and restructurings of all types of businesses and services with the laboratory being no exception. The concept of surge capacity, for example, for testing of a new infectious agent that has emerged, has been a trial by fire, and there are many important lessons to learn from this as well. Should our approach to the next pandemic be to divert our staff from regular laboratory operations and bring into our facilities 6 to 10 new platforms for testing? Perhaps we should consider using temporary warehouse space offsite from our existing laboratory as well as backfill or relocating staffing for this crisis management to prevent complete disruption of our workflow and our policies. This is the type of solution that can exist when contingency planning is a routine part of operations. Those many facilities that were forced to bring in extra platforms are going to be facing a different crisis as test volumes crash; namely, what to do with the equipment. The firms that produce and sell that equipment have a similar challenge of expanding their platform beyond COVID-19 testing and making it relevant and competitive for the laboratories that have their extra platforms. Although I am not sure eBay or LetGo will be full of microscopes just yet, I am sure you are going to be able to pick up some nifty analyzers for an incredibly low price very soon. Will the memorial to the half-a-million we have lost in this country to COVID-19 be the useless bodies of laboratory devices that we so desperately needed in 2020? I think we owe them a lot more than that. Let us actively rethink our strategies in the laboratory and across our healthcare system so that such memorials are never needed again.

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

One thought on “Making Lemonade from Lemons: Our Laboratory Lives after COVID-19”

  1. You bring up many valid points I have made to my customers.
    I am seasoned enough to recall when cytologists picked up slides and read them at home.
    And CLIA changed that. For the sake of quality.
    I look forward to helping customers remain compliant, make best practices from quick practices, and evolve forward with the momentum CoVID-19 has provided.

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