How medical laboratories can show value through process improvement methods and analytics will be among many key topics presented at the upcoming Lab Quality Confab conference

Quality management is the clinical laboratory’s best strategy for surviving and thriving in this era of shrinking lab budgets, PAMA price cuts, and value-based payment. In fact, the actions laboratories take in the next few months will set the course for their path to clinical success and financial sustainability in 2020 and beyond.

But how do medical laboratory managers and pathologists address these challenges while demonstrating their lab’s value? One way is through process improvement methods and another is through the use of analytics.

Clinical pathologists, hospital lab leaders, and independent lab executives have told Dark Daily that the trends demanding their focus include:

  • Ensuring needed resources and appropriate tests, while the lab is scrutinized by insurance companies and internally by hospital administration;
  • PAMA’s (Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014) effects on reimbursement;
  • Consumers’ demand for lower cost and better access to quality healthcare;
  • Serving patients in a wider continuum of care; and
  • Collaborating instead of competing with other labs in the market.

“The laboratory and resources we are given are being scrutinized in a different way than they have been historically,” said Christopher Doern, PhD, Director of Microbiology and Associate Professor of Pathology, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCU Health) Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily.

“Our impact on patient care, in many cases, is very indirect. So, it is difficult to point to outcomes that occur. We know things we do matter and change patient care, but objectively showing that is a real struggle. And we are being asked to do more than we ever had before, and those are the two big things that keep me up at night these days,” he added.

This is where process improvement methods and analytics are helping clinical laboratories understand critical issues and find opportunities for positive change.

“You need to have a strategy that you can adapt to a changing landscape in healthcare. You have to use analytics to guide your progress and measure your success,” Patricia Nortmann, System Director of Laboratory Services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Erlanger, Ky., told Dark Daily.

Clinical Laboratories Can Collaborate Instead of Compete

Prior to a joint venture with TriHealth in Cincinnati, St. Elizabeth lab leaders used data to inform their decision-making. Over about 12 years preceding the consolidation of labs they:

  • Centralized the outreach core lab;
  • Installed front-end automation in chemistry;
  • Standardized the laboratory information system (LIS) and analyzer platforms across five affiliate hospitals; and
  • Implemented front-end automation outside the core area and in the microbiology lab.

“We are now considered a regional reference lab in the state of Kentucky for two healthcare organizations—St. Elizabeth and TriHealth,” Nortmann said. 

Thanks to these changes, the lab more than doubled its workload, growing from 2.1 million to 4.3 million outreach tests in the core laboratory, she added.

Christopher Doern, PhD (left), Director of Microbiology and Associate Professor of Pathology at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System; Patricia Nortmann (center), System Director of Laboratory Services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare; and Joseph Cugini (right), Manager Client Solutions at Health Network Laboratories, will present practical solutions and case studies in quality improvement and analytics for clinical laboratory professionals at the 13th Annual Lab Quality Confab, October 15-16, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo copyright: The Dark Report.)

Using Analytics to Test the Tests

Clinical laboratories also are using analytics and information technology (IT) to improve test utilization.

At VCH Health, Doern said an analytics solution interfaces with their LIS, providing insights into test orders and informing decisions about workflow. “I use this analytics system in different ways to answer different questions, such as:

  • How are clinicians using our tests?
  • When do things come to the lab?
  • When should we be working on them? 

“This is important for microbiology, which is a very delayed discipline because of the incubation and growth required for the tests we do,” he said.

Using analytics, the lab solved an issue with Clostridium difficile (C diff) testing turnaround-time (TAT) after associating it with specimen transportation.

Inappropriate or duplicate testing also can be revealed through analytics. A physician may reconsider a test after discovering another doctor recently ordered the same test. And the technology can guide doctors in choosing tests in areas where the related diseases are obscure, such as serology.  

Avoiding Duplicate Records While Improving Payment

Another example of process improvement is Health Network Laboratories (HNL) in Allentown, Pa. A team there established an enterprise master patient index (EMPI) and implemented digital tools to find and eliminate duplicate patient information and improve lab financial indicators.

“The system uses trusted sources of data to make sure data is clean and the lab has what it needs to send out a proper bill. That is necessary on the reimbursement side—from private insurance companies especially—to prevent denials,” Joseph Cugini, HNL’s Manager Client Solutions, told Dark Daily

HNL reduced duplicate records in its database from 23% to under one percent. “When you are talking about several million records, that is quite a significant improvement,” he said.

Processes have improved not only on the billing side, but in HNL’s patient service centers as well, he added. Staff there easily find patients’ electronic test orders, and the flow of consumers through their visits is enhanced.

Learn More at Lab Quality Confab Conference

Cugini, Doern, and Nortmann will speak on these topics and more during the 13th Annual Lab Quality Confab (LQC), October 15-16, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Ga. They will offer insights, practical knowledge, and case studies involving Lean, Six Sigma, and other process improvement methods during this important 2-day conference, a Dark Daily news release notes.

Register for LQC, which is produced by Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report, online at https://www.labqualityconfab.com/register, or by calling 512-264-7103.   

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

13th Annual Lab Quality Confab October 15-16, 2019. Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, Ga.

Clinical Laboratory Innovators in Lean, Six Sigma, and Process Improvement to Gather in Atlanta October 15-16, 2019