Innovation. Disruption. Unprecedented. Pivot. These are not just the buzzwords of 2020 that spilled over into 2021; these are the words that have changed life and work for those of us in the field of clinical laboratory medicine, and probably forever more. “Black swan theory” is a term in management literature that describes the extent to which organizations and societies are ready to manage large or highly impactful events that are outside of what people might deem “normal.” Laboratory medicine is constantly looking for approaches to improve its efficiency and workflows. However, change is hard, and adoption of innovative solutions can be slow. Yet outside forces can push the field along and cause us to pivot in new and creative ways we never could have predicted were possible.

Nathalie Lepage, PhD, chair of AACC’s 2021 Annual Meeting Organizing Committee (AMOC), welcomed speakers Danielle Maracaja, MD, from the Wake Forest School of Medicine, and Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD, from ICON Clinical Research, who shared their insights at the AMOC chair invited session, “New Technologies and Innovations to Improve the Clinical Laboratory.”

Maracaja’s talk focused on the foundations and history of 3D printing, including how the technology has evolved over the past 30 years, the decreased cost, and the significant improvement in quality and speed to make a manufacturing prototype. Maracaja shared that 3D printing was used during the early stages of the pandemic to produce consumable healthcare products that were in short supply, such as face shields, ear saver devices, nasopharyngeal swabs, and face masks. She suggested future innovations in the clinical laboratory and pathology setting may include reproducing radiology images for educational cases, making replacement parts for laboratory equipment, and development of new technologies.

Maracaja also noted that the way regulatory bodies classified various devices impacted how much testing was needed prior to their use, which led to adoption hesitancy within healthcare systems. In her concluding remarks, Maracaja emphasized that there is no crystal ball that can predict the future, but one thing she stated confidently: “3D printing is a recipe for future innovation.”

Another innovative approach the session covered was the use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, to transport laboratory samples and equipment. Drone use in medicine has evolved beyond delivering medicines, supplies, and specimens in rural areas. During his talk, “Innovation to Improve Patient Care in Laboratory Medicine with the Use of Drones for Specimen Transportation,” Amukele explained two basic use cases for drones:  very rural areas where ground transportation is unreliable or expensive, and for very urban areas where traffic hinders transport. Even as the technology continues to improve, there are problems preventing large-scale use. Many countries ban drones, and most also lack the infrastructure needed to make routine use safe and useful. Sample stability is also a concern. 

Amukele detailed a study he conducted in the Arizona desert in collaboration with Mayo Clinic in Arizona-Scottsdale. The experiment compared chemistry and hematology results after a 160-mile, 3-hour drone flight in a temperature-controlled prototype to standard ground transportation. He found that most analytes were not impacted significantly. Amukele’s video demonstrations of this study and the early adopter sites in Africa really made the concept come to life.

Interested in incorporating drones into your workflow? “Stay abreast of what is happening in healthcare…check out the medical drone delivery database…and get trained [by earning] a remote pilot certificate [from] the FAA,” Amukele said.