Check out the technology behind UAB Medicine’s new $6.8M clinical laboratory

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Ever wonder what happens to that vial of blood that is taken at your doctor’s office?   UAB employees were once analyzing up to 5,000 vials of blood each night of the week.  But, the testing process has just gotten a huge technology infusion from UAB.

UAB Medicine recently welcomed their new automated hospital laboratory.

A robot arm lifts tubes to another rack. Photo courtesy of UAB.

According to Sherry Polhill, Administrative Director responsible for Hospital Laboratories, Respiratory Care and Pulmonary Function at UAB Medicine, the automation line supports the vision of standardization. That means turnaround time with each lab test is improved, and the overall quality of resulting lab work is increased.

Here’s a sneak peak at how the system works. It’s really cool to watch the process. Check it out below:

“High Reliability Organizations (HRO) is where healthcare is headed for the future,” Polhill said. “Laboratories that implement HRO strategies implement methods that maximize teams, focus on minimizing risk and increasing quality or standardization of processes. Implementing the new automation system at UAB Medicine supports the HRO concepts for Laboratory practices.”

The core lab automation project maximizes teams. The already trained technologists provide troubleshooting capabilities for the equipment and the line. That means no one is losing a job because of, you know, robots.

“In addition, the talented lab techs and technologists are repurposed to other new business lines that have been created due to the availability of talented personnel,” Polhill said. “The consistent standardization of tests, where tests are continuously resulted, increases the quality and minimizes the risk for improving turnaround times.”

The $6.8 million dollar lab debuted at the beginning of January, and is located in the UAB Department of Hospital Labs, Division of Laboratory Medicine.

Automation in all its glory. Photo courtesy of UAB.

“Anytime automation is implemented, results produce a steady-state routine format,” Polhill said. “The core lab automation project now offers consistent standardization of tests (that are) continuously being resulted. The randomness of resulting tests prior is different from having specimens being automated. Variables are managed, given the automation system drives the workflow.”

This moving track moves tubes of blood to the automated lab. Photo courtesy of UAB.

The lab’s busiest volume arrives in the middle of the night, from 1 to 5 AM, when thousands of blood tubes arrive from each of the UAB Medicine inpatient hospital units and floors.

The blood tubes arrive at the lab in pneumatic carriers, like the ones you put your check in at the bank, shooting to their laboratorial destination or the automated line in the core laboratory.

At the end of the line, small, grasping mechanical arms pick up the tubes and place them into refrigerators that can hold 10,000 tubes or into room-temperature storage for 5,000 tubes, in case further testing is needed.

At the end of the line, small, grasping mechanical arms pick up the tubes and place them into refrigerators that can hold 10,000 tubes or into room-temperature storage for 5,000 tubes, in case further testing is needed. Photo and adjoining text courtesty of UAB.

According to UAB News, this automated process is monitored and maintained by technologists, keeping the human element on the forefront.

Staff are on hand to watch the yellow warning lights on top of the workstations, signaling a problem reading a bar code or low levels of reagents. The technologists on hand verify abnormal test values for immediate reporting.

Via Giphy

To humanize the process further, as they tend to do in high-tech scientific fields, each of the laboratory workstations were given names so that the staff can easily identify which station needs attention. The technologists chose to name them after the characters on The Big Bang Theory.

So, let’s give a warm, Birmingham welcome to Sheldon, Leonard, Bernadette, Raj, Penny and Howard, the workstations making patient care more valuable, along with the new automation line. Let’s also congratulate the 32 different laboratories, approximately 400 employees and 9 offsite satellite labs that keep the whole process of blood analysis running smoothly.

The new automation lab also gave rise to what Polhill called a Lab Medicine Customer Service line.

“Focusing on teams, developing new business lines and utilizing the talent we have within hospital labs is where we had the vision to develop a Lab Medicine Customer Service line,” Polhill said. “The new Customer Service area now manages all incoming calls that used to go the automation area.

With reduction in labor in the automation area, the new Customer Service area helps the technical area as they now receive and focus on customer service calls. The hospital clinicians are continuing to share this newly added service that went live at the same time as automation.”