Former Commercial Lab Leader Highlights the Hospital Lab as the Solution to Community Sustainability in a Healthcare Crisis

Gary Huff has been an executive in the lab industry for over 20 years, most recently serving as CEO of LabCorp Diagnostics, one of the largest commercial laboratories in the nation. Healthcare Performance Insider (HPI) sat down with Mr. Huff recently to reflect on what we have learned about his area of expertise during the COVID-19 crisis, the commercial laboratory.

A Fractured System

The COVID-19 crisis immediately put the spotlight on the commercial laboratory – specifically timeliness of results, according to Mr. Huff. Speed and information are critical in a time like this and getting results multiple days later directly impacts the ability to mitigate a rise of infection. Hospitals and health systems need to ramp up testing in the hospital labs and in the health systems physician network.

A self-proclaimed “big believer” in the health system labs being the epicenter of providing community health, Mr. Huff continued, noting that a self-contained hospital laboratory is (conversely) prepared for anything. In a self-contained lab, staff is cross trained on instrumentation that cover 90% of needed testing for the immediate population. Processes are lean, automated, and electronic. Data is captured, aggregated and available to the health system to illustrate needed changes in supply chain, testing or staffing. The pieces of the puzzle are complete and fit back together every time.

I believe that, when it comes to serving the communities health, the health system can be that central, sensory center piece that delivers care, provides communication and, most importantly, aggregates the information because information and speed are key in addressing a pandemic like what we have today.

When asked to expand on this thought process, Mr. Huff shared 3 key areas health systems need to begin focusing on, and why each is critical to building a self-contained solution in the local community.

  1. Supply chain readiness. We have to understand having good relationships with your vendors, understanding, where your supplies are coming from and where weaknesses may exist in the supply chain.
  2. Stay up to date on new technologies. If you are a hospital or health system, you are probably not staying up to date on the latest point of care technologies or the new developments that are coming out. As the CEO of a commercial laboratory, partnerships with companies like Thermo Fisher were extremely beneficial because you knew about developments before they were available commercially, allowing you to plan ahead. Whether a spike in volumes or a pandemic, you are aware of alternatives when the need arises.
  3. Connection in the community. Information is key to awareness and mitigation of disease. The hospital lab is critical to providing information that can be aggregated. When you have information on your local population, you can pinpoint areas of hot spots, where potential outbreaks may occur, and subsequently where quarantine should happen.

The hospital lab should play a major role in community health.

Continuing on the topic of community connection, Mr. Huff painted a picture of a healthcare network. The health system works with physicians and employers in the community with the ability to support testing needs, removing the logistics associated with national efforts led by large commercial labs. Conducting testing regionally then allows for faster ramp up of evolving testing needs, meeting local market demand. Conducting testing regionally allows for faster delivery of results, whether that be point of care testing performed inside the doctor’s offices or inside the health system itself, all while maintaining the financial health of the health system to in turn benefit the local community with a strong, sustained healthcare resource.

Mr. Huff’s passion for helping the hospital lab become this sustainable source for the local community has been a key topic of conversation, and evaluation, by healthcare leaders throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The reason why is simple but, until the spotlight of the current healthcare crisis dissipates, it’s not a priority amongst competing needs in healthcare.

Today we have a fractured system where the lead testing provider is the commercial laboratory.

The first step to repairing this fracture is the health system determining whether the hospital lab will support inpatient/outpatient needs only or include the larger community.  If all of the above is the answer, will this be solo or with a partner? A partner can bring capital and intellectual assets that are difficult for a hospital to provide on their own. These assets can enable a broad community service, from testing to getting the data into the health system information systems at a rapid pace.

A Broken Supply Chain

Right alongside the laboratory, the supply chain has shared the spotlight of concern in recent months. While healthcare was clearly unprepared, Mr. Huff shifts the conversation back to what we have learned, and the solutions we are now on the cusp of finding because of this crisis. He believes we have created a band-aid in the short term, and potentially found a way to solve the problem for the long-term.

No one can ignore the mobilization of U.S. based efforts to ramp up testing supplies. The private sector has done a great service to our country, responding rapidly. If you look at other countries, they are still falling behind in this area.

The ability to develop supplies quickly has been a help but part of the problem has been getting those supplies to the right location at the right time. Take the nasal swab as an example. There are only two manufacturers in the world for nasal swabs. As a result of this pandemic however, and the solutions that have come about (with 3D printing in this example), I think you will see that problem be resolved. I also think that you will see the distribution of the supplies getting where they are needed, in the right amount, at the right time.

Focus on Preparedness . . . NOW

As we begin to reopen, and testing becomes essential for people to get back to work safely, Mr. Huff suggests an immediate evaluation of the preparedness of the hospital lab. This includes the supply chain, available services, plans for where testing will occur if a hot spot should emerge, and being acutely aware of what new technologies are on the horizon. With these steps, when the next local, national or global crisis occurs, the hospital lab will be in a position to respond and sustain healthcare in its surrounding community.

Gary Huff

Gary Huff

Author and Business Consultant, Former CEO, LabCorp Diagnostics