When it comes to the ongoing shortage of medical technologists, it’s robotics to the rescue at Banner Desert Medical Center. The hospital’s laboratory now features a Beckman Coulter automation line. The $1.2 million system debuted in mid-June after more than two years of planning and development, and two months of installation.
The automation has cut at least 800 manual steps in the hospital’s lab, which receives about 1,000 specimens each day, said David Price, the hospital’s associate administrator.
Banner Desert is the only East Valley hospital with an automated lab.
“It allows the medical technologists to focus on what they went to school for, really analyzing the bloodwork and looking at the critical values, as opposed to these manual steps of taking (the specimen) and loading it, spinning it and putting a cap on it,” he said.
“This is probably doing the work of at least four people, four medical technologists, and in the future it could be even more.”
The automation resulted from a “6-Sigma lean” remodel and redesign of the laboratory, said Linda Taggart, the lab’s director.
“Six-Sigma” is a manufacturing industry term for eliminating errors in the work force and the work product.
“You’re looking at those processes, where your failure points are, and you’re looking to eliminate those failure points and smooth your process,” she said. “That’s what we did in this redesign.”
Specimens arrive in the lab via pneumatic tube and include a bar code identifying the patient and the required tests, Taggart said. The automation system takes the specimen, reads the bar code, and moves the specimen down a line, she said.
The system puts the specimen in a centrifuge and spins it, and then identifies the volume of the specimen, she said. The specimen is then loaded in one of the lab’s three analyzers where the tests are performed, she said.
“The instruments perform the tests required and we have what we call a command central, which is a three-screen computer system where we have a technologist sitting,” Taggart said. “Those are our valuable labor that are hard to find, and they review all of the results and if there’s a critical result they immediately call the patient caregiver and alert them to that critical result.”
Throughout the process, the automated system reads the bar coding to make sure it is has the correct patient and is conducting the correct tests. Once the specimen is run through the instrumentation, the system places it inside a refrigerator that holds about two to three days’ worth of specimens.
If additional tests are ordered within a 24-hour period, the system retrieves the specimen so “we don’t have to restick the patient,” Taggart said. The system adds a measure of safety because technologists aren’t potentially exposed to any serum from a specimen’s cap, she said.
The lab is busiest between 4 a.m and 6 a.m., and the difference the system has made during crunch time is like night and day, she said. During that time, the lab generally runs 400 to 500 tests.
“Two years ago in our morning turnaround time of getting the lab results by 6 a.m., we were about 76 percent and now we’ve been able to go to 92 percent,” Price said. The automated system doesn’t process pediatric specimens, but allows medical technologists to spend more time focusing on those samples, Taggart said.
“Those are the things where you want that one-onone, personal attention,” she said. “That’s still a manual process.”
Banner Desert is undergoing a $300 million expansion — including a new children’s hospital and an expansion of adult services — and more medical technologists would have been needed to accommodate the growth, Price said.
“We would have to recruit 25 or 30, or 35 medical technologists and they’re so hard to find,” he said. “This was the solution.”