The Importance of Agility in your Lab

The impact of COVID-19 on laboratories is being felt both in theory and in practice. Testing shortages dominate disease mitigation and public policy conversations. The United States initially relied solely on the CDC and Public Health labs to supply all testing needs. When these resources proved insufficient, the FDA opened testing and the two largest national laboratories began testing, but this did little to abate the swell of demand. Insufficient capacity to meet mounting demand resulted in turnaround times of eight to ten days. The inability of these combined efforts to handle COVID-19 volume demonstrates the importance of agility – the ability of laboratories to adapt quickly and meet the needs of their local communities.

Since March 12th, the FDA has authorized 26 commercial COVID-19 tests that are now available for purchase (as of April 9, 2020). The ability to successfully bring new testing into your lab is critical. Local testing for COVID-19 results in shorter turnaround time and faster decisions, especially surrounding isolation precautions, which can conserve much needed PPE. There are several areas of the lab that can benefit from demonstrating agility.

Culture of Agility

Leadership must foster a culture of agility. Transitioning from firefighting to a structured response is critical. With lower volume in areas yet to be inundated with COVID-19 cases, and higher sustained volume where already impacted, we must approach our staffing, supply chain, and testing processes with agility in mind.

Schedule Agility

In a recent webinar titled: Sustainable Approach to Lab Productivity Improvement, keys areas to demonstrate agility are emphatically highlighted.

Staff Schedules are the main point of control for Labor Management and Productivity planning. Poor volume visibility and lack of scheduling optimization tools result in misaligned resources and unnecessary overtime expense.

Schedule Agility ensures that the right staff, working at the right bench, at the right time, at an ideal productivity utilization to ensure accurate test results that meet service requirements.

COVID-19 forced the reduction of elective procedures and most care that is non-emergent/not COVID related. We are seeing reduced volumes at some locations and increased volumes at others. Staffing may need to be reduced for now; however, a plan should be in place to quickly ramp back up with appropriately trained professionals when COVID-19 reaches their location. Alternatively, if your laboratory is experiencing reduced volumes, this time could be used to prepare for a coming influx of COVID patients by cross-training techs to perform method validations to bring in new testing and increase the amount of techs trained to perform any validated COVID testing.

Supply Chain Agility

Supply chains will be tested by COVID-19. It is crucial to evaluate inventory management, implement a process for elevated need, and to communicate with network labs and suppliers to ensure that orders will be fulfilled.

As demand for medical supplies increase, it is vital to ensure that supplies are received and that the contracts in place for high demand items have prices fixed to avoid unexpected budgetary strain. Now is the time to call upon existing vendor partnerships for assistance and build new ones as you recognize gaps in service. Taking both, parallel approaches will help you best meet current demands as well as be better prepared for future surge or recovery needs.

Testing Agility

Plain and simple – being prepared means having options. In this time of uncertainty, having multiple testing platforms validated, i.e. PCR versus serology, as well as having multiple vendors, can support the fluctuating needs of your patient population as well as provide backup methods and suppliers to handle reagent shortages.

Final Thoughts

Your lab must be agile enough to make decisions quickly and implement effectively. This pandemic is changing daily. Whether you are in the middle of a hot spot or in a location that has not yet surged, NOW is the time to identify gaps in your ability to be agile, take action and enhance your healthcare provider teams’ ability to best treat patients.

This article was bylined by Kimberly Zunker.

Kimberly Zunker, MBA, MLS (ASCP)

Kimberly Zunker, MBA, MLS (ASCP)

Consulting Manager