From ‘new-school’ rules of running a clinical laboratory to pharmacy partnerships to leveraging lab data for diagnostics, key industry executives discussed the new era of clinical laboratory and pathology operations
“COVID-19 didn’t change a whole lot of things in one sense, but it accelerated a lot of trends that were already happening in healthcare,” said Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report, and Founder of the Executive War College, during his opening keynote address to a packed ballroom of conference attendees. “Healthcare is transforming, and the transformation is far more pervasive than most consumers appreciate.
“Disintermediation, for example, is taking traditional service providers and disrupting them in substantial ways, and if you think about the end of fee-for-service, be looking forward because your labs can be paid for the value you originate that makes a difference in patient care,” Michel added.
Another opportunity for clinical laboratories, according to Michel, is serving Medicare Advantage plans which have soared in enrollment. “Lab leaders should be studying Medicare Advantage for how to integrate Medicare Advantage incentives into their lab strategies,” he said, highlighting the new influence of risk adjustment models which use diagnostic data to predict health condition expenditures.
Opening sessions at this week’s annual Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management, presented by Robert L. Michel (above), Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report, discussed demand for delivering healthcare services—including medical laboratory testing—as consumer preferences evolve, new care models are designed, and as payers seek value over volume. While these three forces may be challenging at the outset, they also create opportunities for clinical laboratories and pathology groups—a focal point of the Executive War College each year. (Photo copyright: The Dark Intelligence Group.)
Medical Laboratories Must Adapt to ‘New-School’ Rules
During his keynote address, Stan Schofield, Vice President and Managing Principal at The Compass Group, noted that while the basic “old-school” rules of successfully running a clinical laboratory have not changed—e.g., adding clients, keeping clients, creating revenue opportunities, getting paid, and reducing expenses—the interpretation of each rule has changed. The Compass Group is a trade federation based in South Carolina that serves not-for-profit healthcare integrated delivery networks (IDNs), including 32 health systems and 600 hospitals.
Schofield advised that when it comes to adding new clients under the “new-school” rules of lab management, clinical laboratory directors must be aware of and adapt to hospital integrations of core labs, clinical integrations across health systems, seamless services, direct contracting with employers in insurance relationships, and direct-to-consumer testing. Keeping clients, Schofield said, involves five elements:
Strong customer service.
A tailored metrics program for quality services based on what is important to a lab’s clients.
Balanced scorecards that look at the business opportunity and value proposition with each client.
Monitoring patients’ experiences and continuous improvement.
Participation in all payer agreements.
As to the problem of commoditization of laboratory goods and services, Schofield said, “Right now, we’re facing the monetization of the laboratory. We’re going to swiftly move from commoditization to monetization to commercialization.”
Diagnostics and pharmacy now intersect, according to Pope. “Pharmacists are on the move, and they are true contender as a new provider for you,” he said. “An area of pharmacy that is dependent upon labs is specialty medications.”
Specialty medicines now account for 55% of prescription spending, up from 28% in 2011, driven by growth in auto-immune and oncology, Pope noted. Other examples include companion diagnostics required for targeted treatments pertaining to all major cancers, and new areas like thalassemia (inherited blood disorders), obesity, next-generation sequencing, and pharmacogenomics, in addition to routine testing such as liver function and complete blood count (CBC).
Federal legislation may soon recognize pharmacists as healthcare providers who will be trained to perform specific clinical services, Pope said. Some states already recognize pharmacists as providers, he noted, explaining that pharmacies need lab data for three primary reasons:
Service—Pharmacies can act as a referral source to clinical laboratories. When referring, pharmacies may need to communicate lab test results to patients or providers to coordinate care.
Value-based care—Pharmacies would draw on data to counsel, prescribe, and coordinate care for chronic disease management, among other services.
Diagnostics and pharmacogenetics—Specialty medication workflows require documented test results within a specific timeframe prior to dispensing.
Another point Pope made: Large pharmacies are seeking lab partners. Labs that can provide rapid turnaround time and good pricing on complex tests provide pharmacies with partnership opportunities.
Using AI to Create Patients’ ‘Digital Twins’ That Help Identify Disease and Improve Care
High-tech healthcare technology underlies many opportunities in the clinical laboratory and pathology market, as evidenced throughout the Executive War College’s 2023 curriculum. An ongoing challenge for labs, however, is how to produce the valuable datasets that all labs have the potential to generate.
“It feels like we’ve come so far,” explained Brad Bostic, CEO of hc1 during his keynote address. “We’ve got the internet. We’ve got the cloud. All of this is amazing, but in reality, we have this massive proliferation of data everywhere and it’s very difficult to know how to actually put that into use. And nobody’s generating more data than clinical laboratories.
“Every single interaction with a patient that generates data gives you this opportunity to create the idea of a ‘digital twin.’ That means that labs are creating a mathematical description of what a person’s state is and using that information to look at how providers can optimally diagnose and treat that person. Ultimately, it is bigger than just one person. It’s hundreds of millions of people that are generating all this data, and many of these people fall into similar cohorts.”
This digital twin opportunity is heavily fueled by medical laboratory testing, Bostic said, adding that labs need to be able to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to:
“I recommend lab leaders sit down with their teams and any outside partners they trust and identify what are their lab’s goals,” Bostic stated. “Think about how this technology can advance a lab’s mission. Look at strategy holistically—everything from internal operations to how patient care is affected.”
Should this AI-driven technology prove viable in clinical settings, it could contribute to easing the shortage of qualitied phlebotomists for medical laboratories worldwide
Could phlebotomists one day be out of a job? If European medical technology company Vitestro has its way, that could someday become a reality in European hospitals and in clinical laboratories worldwide. Headquartered in the Netherlands, the company has raised EUR 12.7 million ($14,057,947.50 US) in Series A financing to bring to market “the world’s first autonomous blood drawing device,” BioWorld Med Tech reported.
According to Vitestro’s website, the “device combines AI-based, ultrasound-guided 3D reconstruction with robotic needle insertion, ensuring accurate and secure blood collection. The procedure is performed fully automatically, from tourniquet to bandage application.”
This is another example of how artificial intelligence companies are finding opportunities in staffing shortages the healthcare industry is experiencing globally. In this case, the novel technology could help address the lack of qualified phlebotomists. And clinical laboratories around the world could become the proving grounds for new AI-driven devices that end up replacing human healthcare workers.
“This financing round marks a new phase of growth for Vitestro which brings the company closer to its mission of improving the venipuncture procedure for hundreds of millions of patients per year,” said Vitestro CEO and co-founder Toon Overbeeke (above), in a press release. “We look forward to growing the business and transforming patient care with Sonder Capital, leveraging their expertise in successfully commercializing medical robotic technologies.” If proven viable, clinical laboratories around the world suffering from shortages of phlebotomists could benefit from AI-driven autonomous blood draw stations. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)
Next Evolution for Clinical Laboratories
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 14 billion clinical laboratory tests ordered annually in the US and 70% of medical decisions depend on laboratory results. One of the more common clinical laboratory procedures—venous blood draws—is pivotal in clinical diagnostics, but a worldwide shortage of skilled phlebotomists is having an impact on this critical testing method.
With the announcement of its completion of a EUR 12.7-million Series A financing round to bring the “world’s first” autonomous blood draw device to market, Vitestro seems poised to impact both the shortage and the job prospects of existing phlebotomists. This financing round was led by San Carlos, California-based Sonder Capital and included investors with experience in the clinical laboratory and medical technology industries.
“Automating this ubiquitous procedure is the next evolution for clinical laboratories, allowing them to improve quality of care for patients while building a more sustainable operation,” stated Andy McGibbon, Managing Partner at Sonder Capital in a March press release.
According to Investopedia, Series A financing refers to “an investment in a privately-held start-up company after it has shown progress in building its business model and demonstrates the potential to grow and generate revenue. It often refers to the first round of venture money a firm raises after seed and angel investors.”
Vitestro says it will utilize the capital from this financing round to accelerate production development, prepare market authorization in the European Union, and initiate production.
Vitestro’s autonomous blood drawing device prototype (above) has been tested on more than 1,000 volunteers and patients. Vitestro plans to continue its studies on the device this year and anticipates entering the European market with the device sometime in 2024. Development of this technology is something that phlebotomists and clinical laboratory managers will want to track. (Photo copyright: Vitestro.)
Coming to a Clinical Laboratory Near You
“Medical robotics will make optimal outcomes available to everyone. I strongly believe Vitestro will set the world standard in autonomous blood drawing,” said Fred Moll, MD, Managing Partner of Sonder Capital in the press release. Moll, who has been heralded as the “father of robotic surgery,” was also appointed as a non-executive board member of Vitestro. Moll co-founded Intuitive Surgical, Inc., Hansen Medical, Restoration Robotics, and Auris Health (acquired by Ethicon, a Johnson and Johnson company).
On April 12, Vitestro announced that leading Dutch clinical laboratory OLVG Lab will be the first healthcare provider to begin using their blood-drawing device. A number of hospitals, clinical laboratories, and blood drawing departments are preparing to use the device and OLVG Lab plans to have the system fully operational by late next year, according to a press release. OLVG lab provides laboratory services to hospitals, clinics, and care providers in the greater Amsterdam area.
“Robotization has become an important topic in diagnostics. Vitestro’s technology will improve the standardization and optimization of the sampling procedure. And it helps solve staff shortages in our blood drawing department,” said Anja Leyte, director of OLVG Lab, in the press release. “But more importantly, the patients are also very positive. Our staff are really enthusiastic as well and can’t wait to start using this breakthrough technology in our healthcare.”
Vitestro’s device is still in the testing phase but could prove to be very beneficial to clinical laboratories and help alleviate the shortage of trained phlebotomists. An automated blood draw machine might also improve the consistency of the blood draw experience for both patients and healthcare professionals.
It’s not just radiology. Gen Z residents will be matching in pathology and other specialties, and that means clinical laboratories should be ready to adapt their recruiting and training to Gen Z’s unique characteristics
It’s a big event in medical schools across the nation when it is time for residency programs to match residency candidates with first-year and second-year post-graduate training positions. But this year has a special twist because—for example in radiology—this is the first class of Generation Z (Gen Z) residency candidates to be matched with radiology residency programs.
In their abstract, the authors wrote, “This year, the radiology community will experience the beginning of a generational change by matching its first class of Generation Z residents. To best welcome and embrace the changing face of the radiology workforce, this Viewpoint highlights the values that this next generation will bring, how radiologists can improve the way they teach the next generation, and the positive impact that Generation Z will have on the specialty and the way radiologists care for patients.”
Members of Gen Z are now entering the workforce in large numbers. To recruit high-quality candidates from this generation, healthcare employers—including clinical laboratories and pathology practices—may have to adapt the way they interact with and train these individuals.
Gen Z is generally described as individuals who were born between 1995 and 2012. Also known as “Zoomers,” the demographic comprises approximately 25% of the current population of the United States. They are extremely diverse, tend to be very socially conscious, and can easily adapt to rapid changes in communications and education, according to the AJR paper.
Although the paper deals with radiology, this type of information can also be valuable to clinical laboratories as Gen Z pathologists are poised to enter clinical practice in growing numbers. This marks the beginning of the professional laboratory careers of Zoomers, while Millennials move up into higher levels of lab management, the oldest Gen Xers near retirement age, and Baby Boomers retire out of the profession.
“Gen Z employees bring unique values, expectations, and perspectives to their jobs,” said Paul McDonald (above), Senior Executive Director at staffing firm Robert Half in a news release. “They’ve grown up in economically turbulent times, and many of their characteristics and motivations reflect that.” Thus, clinical laboratories may have to develop methods for recruiting and training Gen Z staff that match the unique characteristics of Gen Z candidates. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)
Zoomers Like Digital and Artificial Intelligence Technology
One of the most unique aspects of Gen Z is that they have never lived in a world without the Internet and have little memory of life without smartphones. Zoomers grew up totally immersed in digital technology and tend to be comfortable using digital tools in their everyday life and in the workplace. They lean towards being very open to artificial intelligence (AI) and how it can assist humans in analysis and diagnostic methods.
“This group of professionals has grown up with technology available to them around the clock and is accustomed to constant learning,” said Paul McDonald, Senior Executive Director at staffing firm Robert Half in a news release. “Companies with a solid understanding of this generation’s values and preferences will be well prepared to create work environments that attract a new generation of employees and maximize their potential.”
According to the AJR paper, Zoomers learn best by doing, so employers should concentrate on interactive learning opportunities, such as simulations, virtual reality, and case-based methods for teaching the aspects of the job. They are likely to expect digital and blended resources as well as traditional approaches to learning their new job responsibilities.
The paper goes on to state that Gen Z members value diversity, equity, inclusivity, sustainability, civic engagement, and organizational transparency. Their social consciousness and diversity may yield a greater range of perspectives and problem-solving approaches which may bolster their sensitivity to patient-centered care.
“The oldest in Gen Z have already seen a recession and a war on terrorism. They’ve seen politics at its worst. And now they’ve seen a global pandemic and are about to see recession again,” said David Stillman, founder of GenGuru, a boutique management consulting firm that provides insights on how best to connect with Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Gen Z, in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “They are survivors,” he added.
According to the SHRM, “Stillman says Millennials, who preceded Generation Z, were coddled by their parents. He maintains that Generation Z’s parents were more truthful, telling their offspring, ‘You’re going to have a really tough time out there, you have to work super hard,’ which he says created ‘the most competitive generation in the workforce since the Baby Boomers.’”
Gen Z Wants More than a Paycheck, They Want Purpose
The American Journal of Roentgenology paper also states that Gen Z members grew up in a rapidly changing world and tend to be resilient, adaptable, and flexible. They have experienced and witnessed many stressors and navigate these issues by focusing on mental health and a meaningful work-life balance. With respect to a profession, they are searching for more than just a paycheck, and they want a purposeful career where they feel a sense of belonging.
Increase information sharing and transparency to help alleviate fear and anxiety.
Incentivize them by showing them clear paths to career progression.
Make sure they know how their individual contributions matter to the organization.
Motivate them by giving them room for autonomy and experimentation.
Provide specific and constructive feedback.
Harness community and in-person interactions to boost professional collaborations.
Prioritize wellness and mental health.
“Be prepared to spend time with them face to face,” McDonald stated. “They want to be mentored and coached. If you coach them, you’re going to retain them.”
Preparing to Attract Gen Z to Clinical Laboratories
As Generation Z comes of age, more of them will be working in the medical professions. Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups would be well advised to prepare their businesses by adjusting leadership, adapting recruiting efforts, and shifting marketing to attract Zoomers and remain relevant and successful in the future.
Although sweeping statements about individual generations may be limiting, understanding their unique insights, values, and backgrounds can be helpful in the workplace. With a large amount of Gen Z workers now transitioning from college into careers, it will be beneficial for clinical laboratory managers to recognize their unique characteristics to recruit and maintain talented workers more effectively.
The deal will enable Crosscope’s digital pathology platform to layer around Clarapath’s histology automation hardware, a combination that could improve quality and efficiencies in diagnostic services for future customers, according to a Clarapath press release.
Clarapath’s goal with its products is to automate certain manual processes in histology laboratories, while at the same time reducing variability in how specimens are processed and produced into glass slides. In an exclusive interview with Dark Daily, Eric Feinstein, CEO and President at Clarapath said he believes the resulting data about these activities can drive further changes.
“A histotechnologist turns a microtome wheel and makes decisions about a piece of tissue in real time,” noted Feinstein, who will speak at the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management on April 25-26 in New Orleans. “All of that real-time data isn’t captured. Imagine if we could take all of that data from thousands of histotechnologists who are cutting every day and aggregate it. Then you could start drawing definitive conclusions about best practices.”
“Clarapath’s foundation is about creating consistency and standardizing steps in histology—and uncovering the data that you need in order to accomplish those goals as a whole system,” Eric Feinstein (above), CEO and President at Clarapath told Dark Daily. “A histology lab’s workflow—from when the tissue comes in to when the glass slide is produced—should all be connected.” Many processes in histology and anatomic pathology continue to be manual. Automated solutions can contribute to improved productivity and reducing variability in how individual specimens are processed. (Photo copyright: Clarapath.)
Details Behind Clarapath’s Deal to Acquire Crosscope
As part of its acquisition, Clarapath of Hawthorne, New York, has retained all of Crosscope’s employees, who are located in Mountain View, California, and Bombay, India. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Clarapath’s flagship histology automation product is SectionStar, a tissue sectioning and transfer system designed to automate inefficient and manual activities in slide processing. The device offers faster and more efficient sample processing while reducing human involvement. Clarapath expects SectionStar be on the market in 2023. The company is currently taking pre-orders.
Meanwhile, Crosscope developed Crosscope Dx, a turnkey digital pathology solution that provides workflow tools and slide management as well as AI and machine learning to assist pathologists with their medical decision-making and diagnoses.
Adoption of Digital Pathology and Automation Can Be Challenging
Digital pathology has experienced growing popularity in the post-COVID-19 pandemic world. This is not only because remote pathology case reviews have become increasingly acceptable to physicians but also because of the ongoing shortages in clinical laboratory staffing.
“A pain point today for clinicians and laboratories is labor. That’s across the board,” Feinstein said. “We can help solve that with SectionStar.”
Feinstein does not believe adoption of digital pathology and histology automation is proceeding slowly, but he does acknowledge barriers to healthcare organizations installing the technologies.
“There are lots of little things that—from a workflow perspective—people have outsized expectations about,” he explained. “Clinicians and administrators are not used to innovating in a product sense. They may be innovating on how they deliver care or treatment pathways, but they’re not used to developing an engineering product and going through alpha and beta stages. That makes adopting new technology challenging.”
Medical laboratory managers and pathologists interested in pursuing histology automation and digital pathology should first determine what processes are sub-optimal or would benefit from the standardization hardware and software can offer. Being able to articulate those gains can help build the case for a return on investment to decision-makers.
Another resource to consider: Feinstein will speak about innovations for remote histology laboratory workers at the upcoming Executive War College for Clinical Laboratory, Diagnostics, and Pathology Management on April 25-26 in New Orleans. His session is titled, “Re-engineering the Classic Histology Laboratory: Enabling the Remote Histotechnologist with New Tools That Improve Productivity, Automate Processes, and Protect Quality.”
Though smartphone apps are technically not clinical laboratory tools, anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists (MLSs) may be interested to learn how health information technology (HIT), machine learning, and smartphone apps are being used to assess different aspects of individuals’ health, independent of trained healthcare professionals.
The issue that the Cedars Sinai researchers were investigating is the accuracy of patient self-reporting. Because poop can be more complicated than meets the eye, when asked to describe their bowel movements patients often find it difficult to be specific. Thus, use of a smartphone app that enables patients to accurately assess their stools in cases where watching the function of their digestive tract is relevant to their diagnoses and treatment would be a boon to precision medicine treatments of gastroenterology diseases.
“This app takes out the guesswork by using AI—not patient input—to process the images (of bowel movements) taken by the smartphone,” said gastroenterologist Mark Pimentel, MD (above), Executive Director of Cedars-Sinai’s Medically Associated Science and Technology (MAST) program and principal investigator of the study, in a news release. “The mobile app produced more accurate and complete descriptions of constipation, diarrhea, and normal stools than a patient could, and was comparable to specimen evaluations by well-trained gastroenterologists in the study.” (Photo copyright: Cedars-Sinai.)
Pros and Cons of Bristol Stool Scale
In their paper, the scientists discussed the Bristol Stool Scale (BSS), a traditional diagnostic tool for identifying stool forms into seven categories. The seven types of stool are:
Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts (difficult to pass).
Type 2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy.
Type 3: Like a sausage, but with cracks on its surface.
Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft (average stool).
Type 5: Soft blobs with clear cut edges.
Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool (diarrhea).
Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid (diarrhea).
Thus, according to the researchers, AI algorithms can help with diagnosis by systematically doing the assessments for the patients, News Medical reported.
30,000 Stool Images Train New App
To conduct their study, the Cedars-Sinai researchers tested an AI smartphone app developed by Dieta Health. According to Health IT Analytics, employing AI trained on 30,000 annotated stool images, the app characterizes digital images of bowel movements using five parameters:
“The app used AI to train the software to detect the consistency of the stool in the toilet based on the five parameters of stool form, We then compared that with doctors who know what they are looking at,” Pimentel told Healio.
AI Assessments Comparable to Doctors, Better than Patients
According to Health IT Analytics, the researchers found that:
AI assessed the stool comparable to gastroenterologists’ assessments on BSS, consistency, fragmentation, and edge fuzziness scores.
AI and gastroenterologists had moderate-to-good agreement on volume.
AI outperformed study participant self-reports based on the BSS with 95% accuracy, compared to patients’ 89% accuracy.
Additionally, the AI outperformed humans in specificity and sensitivity as well:
Specificity (ability to correctly report a negative result) was 27% higher.
Sensitivity (ability to correctly report a positive result) was 23% higher.
“A novel smartphone application can determine BSS and other visual stool characteristics with high accuracy compared with the two expert gastroenterologists. Moreover, trained AI was superior to subject self-reporting of BSS. AI assessments could provide more objective outcome measures for stool characterization in gastroenterology,” the Cedars-Sinai researchers wrote in their paper.
“In addition to improving a physician’s ability to assess their patients’ digestive health, this app could be advantageous for clinical trials by reducing the variability of stool outcome measures,” said gastroenterologist Ali Rezaie, MD, study co-author and Medical Director of Cedars-Sinai’s GI Motility Program in the news release.
The researchers plan to seek FDA review of the mobile app.
Opportunity for Clinical Laboratories
Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders may want to reach out to referring gastroenterologists to find out how they can help to better serve gastro patients. As the Cedars-Sinai study suggests, AI smartphone apps can perform BSS assessments as good as or better than humans and may be useful tools in the pursuit of precision medicine treatments for patient suffering from painful gastrointestinal disorders.