The road map for success in laboratory medicine has always involved strategies for communicating and integrating with stakeholders, including clinicians, administration, information technology experts, and IVD industry vendors. Laboratories also face the continuous challenge of balancing high quality on one hand with the ongoing pressures to reduce costs on the other—all while maintaining compliance with evolving regulations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, laboratory medicine professionals felt these demands like never before. Yet out of the ordeal, we already are able to draw important lessons not only about how to cope with a pandemic, but also how to lead the profession into the future.

In particular, the challenges laboratories faced during a global pandemic demonstrated the opportunities to learn from and improve laboratory medicine on an international level. For example, it has been common for clinically significant variability in patient results to arise between laboratories.

This is why so many laboratories have responded with initiatives to harmonize action limits and critical-results reporting, embrace continuous quality improvement, strengthen their inventory management and resource allocation, and renew their commitment to personnel management and teamwork.

A Drive for Digitization

Embracing digital technology and automation is another growth area that is another area of universal growth in laboratory medicine. For example, codifying digital technology can drive supply chain efficiency during times of stress to maintain the healthcare ecosystem. Yet its success hinges on leaders in the laboratory: Efficiency depends on commercial excellence, demand management, and compliance management systems to mitigate the impact of supply chain shortages.

Effective leadership also is key to developing staff skills and tackling labor shortages. In particular, leaders must adopt strategic thinking and embrace innovation. The following laboratory personnel management approaches are recommended for effective leadership across the globe: training in motivation, communication, and team development; stress management and mental health programs; time management; strategic planning; inventory management; laboratory safety practices; and staff cross-training.

The pandemic also has emphasized for laboratories the need to speed adoption of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Together, these measures offer promising results in streamlining clinical laboratory workflows. Moreover, innovation continues to lower costs while the technologies themselves advance.

The implementation of cloud computing, machine learning, and paperless workflows are instrumental in the transformation of the laboratory—specifically, influencing clinical validation, procedure efficiency, data handling, data analysis, and much more. In addition, artificial intelligence can help laboratories compute risk stratification based on laboratory and clinical data using evidence-based guidelines.

For example, our laboratory has applied machine learning-based models using open-source software to predict the mild, moderate, and severe cases of COVID-19 based on routine laboratory biomarkers.

Likewise, all laboratory leaders must operate within a financial structure. The impact of direct and indirect costs on a laboratory’s budget can be significant, and proper management of these costs is crucial to making operational improvements. Lab professionals should use current state value stream maps to identify opportunities for building resilient diagnostic strategies in the laboratory process flow with a total cost of ownership model.

Technology for Safety and Training

Many of these themes were borne out in a recent International Federation of Clinical Chemistry survey of laboratory leaders across the globe. The survey asked about the following domains in laboratory management: process re-engineering; lab safety measures; staff training; stress management; inventory management; digitization; resource allocation (personal protective equipment, reagents, quality control materials, and proficiency testing materials); remote reporting; and leadership training postgraduation.

The survey found that investing in safety measures was the top priority, followed by cross training, stress management, and staggering duties. Respondents reported that remote laboratory information system access, cloud-based servers, and automation are the tools that helped laboratorians face these challenges.

During the pandemic, we all have realized that a lab’s journey does not come with a planner and roadmap. As unexpected and unprecedented healthcare needs continue to drive cost burdens onto hospital systems, the pressures laboratories face are not easing. Efficiently managing these intensifying pressures is critical to the sustainability of laboratory management and requires new strategies to reduce costs while maintaining quality.

Accepting the challenges of leadership and embracing new technologies and leadership strategies is the only way laboratorians will be ready for future pandemics.

Barnali Das, MD, DNB, PGDHHM is lead consultant in the biochemistry and immunology & toxicology sections of Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital & Medical Research Institute in Mumbai, India, and chair of AACC’s India Section. Email: [email protected]