As with clinical laboratories, worker shortage is affecting large retail pharmacy chains and independent pharmacies alike
Staffing shortages in clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups caused by the Great Resignation is having a similar impact on retail pharmacy chains. Consequently, pharmacy chains are reducing store hours and even closing sites, according to USA Today.
Pharmacies now report similar shortages in qualified workers, partly due to the sharp decrease in revenue from COVID-19 vaccinations, but also due to worker burnout. Both developments have counterparts in clinical laboratories as well.
“I’m concerned that without the help from the COVID-19 vaccinations that everyone needed, these pharmacies that were able to tough it out for another year or two might not be able to continue,” B. Douglas Hoey, PharmD, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), told USA Today. Clinical laboratories that processed large numbers of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics have experienced the same sudden drop in revenue causing similar difficulties maintaining staffing levels. (Photo copyright: Cardinal Health.)
Staffing Shortages Leading to Safety Concerns
According to the Washington Post’s coverage of a study conducted in 2021 of 6,400 pharmacists in various retail and hospital environments, a majority did not feel they could conduct their jobs efficiently or safely.
“75% of the pharmacists in [the] survey disagreed with the statement ‘Sufficient time is allocated for me to safely perform patient care/clinical duties.’”
“71% said there were not enough pharmacists working to ‘meet patient care/clinical duties.’”
“65% said ‘payment for pharmacy services’ did not support their ‘ability to meet clinical and non-clinical duties.’”
“Workplace conditions have pushed many pharmacists and pharmacy teams to the brink of despair,” said the board of trustees of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) in a press release, the Washington Post reported. “Pharmacy burnout is a significant patient safety issue. It is impacting patients today with delayed prescription fulfillment, unacceptable waits for vaccines and testing, and potential errors due to high volume, long hours, and pressure to meet performance metrics.”
This is a sentiment that has been repeated across every facet of healthcare—including in clinical laboratories—where staff shortages are being felt.
“The pressure never let up. No matter how mind-numbing and repetitive the work could get, we had to work with constant vigilance, as there was absolutely no room for error,” Bator wrote.
“We techs were left unsupported and unmentored throughout the pandemic,” she continued. “No one cared if we were learning or growing in our job, and there was little encouragement for us to enter training or residency programs. We were just expendable foot soldiers: this is not a policy that leads to long-term job retention.”
Healthcare workers feeling burnt out and under-appreciated during the pandemic led to mass resignations that produced staffing shortages throughout the industry. It appears this trend has caught up to pharmacies as well.
Workforce Wasn’t Ready
Local and chain pharmacies played an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmacists distributed COVID-19 tests and treatment to their communities. But for many it was a struggle to keep up.
Much like Bator recounted in her essay, pharmacy workers suddenly had new responsibilities, longer working hours, and little room for error.
“There are multiple stories about pharmacists just getting overwhelmed. The stress level and burnout is high,” Dima M. Qato, PharmD, PhD, told USA Today. Qato is Hygeia Centennial Chair and Associate Professor (with tenure) in the Titus Family Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Southern California. “So, pharmacists leave, and stores have to shorten” their hours, she added.
Scheduling and Patience Can Help
What can be done to soften some of the issues staff shortages are causing? Ferreri suggests that pharmacies set appointment times for regular customers so that a pharmacist’s workload can be more predictable. An appointment system can ease stress for both the pharmacist and patient. Ferreri advises customers to be patient when it comes to their prescriptions. She suggests patients give pharmacies more than a day’s notice for refills.
“I think on both sides of the counter, we need to all have grace and realize this is a very challenging and stressful time for everyone,” said Brigid Groves, PharmD, Vice President, Pharmacy Practice at the American Pharmacists Association.
With burnout, staff shortages, and stress affecting nearly every aspect of the healthcare industry, having patience with each other will go a long way to helping clinical laboratories, pharmacies, and patients navigate the road ahead.
Hello primary diagnosis of digital pathology images via artificial intelligence! Goodbye light microscopes!
Digital pathology is poised to take a great leap forward. Within as few as 12 months, image analysis algorithms may gain regulatory clearance in the United States for use in primary diagnosis of whole-slide images (WSIs) for certain types of cancer. Such a development will be a true revolution in surgical pathology and would signal the beginning of the end of the light microscope era.
A harbinger of this new age of digital pathology and automated image analysis is a press release issued last week by Ibex Medical Analytics of Tel Aviv, Israel. The company announced that its Galen artificial intelligence (AI)-powered platform for use in the primary diagnosis of specific cancers will undergo an accelerated review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
FDA’s ‘Breakthrough Device Designation’ for Pathology AI Platform
Ibex stated that “The FDA’s Breakthrough Device Designation is granted to technologies that have the potential to provide more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. The designation enables close collaboration with, and expedited review by, the FDA, and provides formal acknowledgement of the Galen platform’s utility and potential benefit as well as the robustness of Ibex’s clinical program.”
“All surgical pathologists should recognize that, once the FDA begins to review and clear algorithms capable of using digital pathology images to make an accurate primary diagnosis of cancer, their daily work routines will be forever changed,” stated Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report. “Essentially, as FDA clearance is for use in clinical care, pathology image analysis algorithms powered by AI will put anatomic pathology on the road to total automation.
“Clinical laboratories have seen the same dynamic, with CBCs (complete blood counts) being a prime example. Through the 1970s, clinical laboratories employed substantial numbers of hematechnologists [hematechs],” he continued. “Hematechs used a light microscope to look at a smear of whole blood that was on a glass slide with a grid. The hematechs would manually count and record the number of red and white blood cells.
“That changed when in vitro diagnostics (IVD) manufacturers used the Coulter Principle and the Coulter Counter to automate counting the red and white blood cells in a sample, along with automatically calculating the differentials,” Michel explained. “Today, only clinical lab old-timers remember hematechs. Yet, the automation of CBCs eventually created more employment for medical technologists (MTs). That’s because the automated instruments needed to be operated by someone trained to understand the science and medicine involved in performing the assay.”
Primary Diagnosis of Cancer with an AI-Powered Algorithm
Surgical pathology is poised to go down a similar path. Use of a light microscope to conduct a manual review of glass slides will be supplanted by use of digital pathology images and the coming next generation of image analysis algorithms. Whether these algorithms are called machine learning, computational pathology, or artificial intelligence, the outcome is the same—eventually these algorithms will make an accurate primary diagnosis from a digital image, with comparable quality to a trained anatomic pathologist.
How much of a threat is automated analysis of digital pathology images? Computer scientist/engineer Ajit Singh, PhD, a partner at Artiman Ventures and an authority on digital pathology, believes that artificial intelligence is at the stage where it can be used for primary diagnosis for two types of common cancer: One is prostate cancer, and the other is dermatology.
“It is now possible to do a secondary read, and even a first read, in prostate cancer with an AI system alone. In cases where there may be uncertainty, a pathologist can review the images. Now, this is specifically for prostate cancer, and I think this is a tremendous positive development for diagnostic pathways,” he added.
Use of Digital Pathology with AI-Algorithms Changes Diagnostics
Pathologists who are wedded to their light microscopes will want to pay attention to the impending arrival of a fully digital pathology system, where glass slides are converted to whole-slide images and then digitized. From that point, the surgical pathologist becomes the coach and quarterback of an individual patient’s case. The pathologist guides the AI-powered image analysis algorithms. Based on the results, the pathologist then orders supplementary tests appropriate to developing a robust diagnosis and guiding therapeutic decisions for that patient’s cancer.
In his interview with The Dark Report, Singh explained that the first effective AI-powered algorithms in digital pathology will be developed for prostate cancer and skin cancer. Both types of cancer are much less complex than, say, breast cancer. Moreover, the AI developers have decades of prostate cancer and melanoma cases where the biopsies, diagnoses, and downstream patient outcomes create a rich data base from which the algorithms can be trained and tuned.
This webinar is organized as a roundtable discussion so participants can interact with the expert panelists. The Chair and Moderator is Ajit Singh, PhD, Adjunct Professor at the Stanford School of Medicine and Partner at Artiman Ventures.
The panelists (above) represent academic pathology, community hospital pathology, and the commercial sector. They are:
Because the arrival of automated analysis of digital pathology images will transform the daily routine of every surgical pathologist, it would be beneficial for all pathology groups to have one or more of their pathologists register and participate in this critical webinar.
The roundtable discussion will help them understand how quickly AI-powered image analysis is expected be cleared for use by the FDA in such diseases as prostate cancer and melanomas. Both types of cancers generate high volumes of case referrals to the nation’s pathologists, so potential for disruption to long-standing client relationships, and the possible loss of revenue for pathology groups that delay their adoption of digital pathology, can be significant.
On the flip side, community pathology groups that jump on the digital pathology bandwagon early and with the right preparation will be positioned to build stronger client relationships, increase subspecialty case referrals, and generate additional streams of revenue that boost partner compensation within their group.
Also, because so many pathologists are working remotely, Dark Daily has arranged special group rates for pathology practices that would like their surgical pathologists to participate in this important webinar and roundtable discussion on AI-powered primary diagnosis of pathology images. Inquire at email@example.com or call 512-264-7103.
Study was published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and showed how high-deductible healthcare plans are motivating consumers to use online transparency tools to search for providers that offer greatest value
Do consumers choose less expensive medical laboratories and imaging providers when they can see the prices in advance? The findings of a recently released study suggest that the answer is “yes”—that consumers will shop for the clinical laboratory with the cheapest test prices when they have access to price information!
This is one conclusion from a study of a half million consumers conducted by Castlight, Inc. (NYSE:CSLT), a San Francisco-based company that offers employers an online tool that enables their employees to compare healthcare pricing among their network providers. Researchers at Castlight confirmed that if consumers know the price of laboratory and imaging tests or physician visits in advance, they will choose the less expensive provider. (more…)
High Co-pays for Lab Tests May Create a Collection Nightmare for Clinical Laboratories
As new facts about the prices of premiums and the amount of patient co-pays for California’s health information exchange—called Covered California—are published, the news is not likely to be favorable for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups in the Golden State.
Of particular note is that Covered California has published a requirement that patients will be charged a $35 co-pay for medical laboratory testing. Some lab industry executives have pointed out that it will be a challenge to collect these co-pays. They expect labs will incur higher costs attempting to collect these co-pays while at the same time seeing a substantial increase in levels of bad debt. However, all of this will not happen until 2014, when Covered California begins providing health insurance coverage.
For one category of insured beneficiaries, there is a bit of good news. Insurance exchange premiums for individuals not covered by employer health plans will be lower than previously expected. Covered California will charge, on average, $321 per month on average for the “Silver,” medium-tier plan, noted Peter V. Lee, Executive Director of Covered California, in a report published by the Wall Street Journal. (more…)