For years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, laboratories all around the world had been dealing with severe staffing shortages and major budgetary constraints. Those factors combined to push many facilities to the brink of closure and kept the rest from operating at full capacity for long stretches of time. Then, when the pandemic struck, those issues exploded into a full-blown crisis.
But it wasn’t all bad news. That’s because the sudden flood of work coupled with the need to reduce person-to-person transmission of the virus has prompted many facilities to speed up their plans to adopt additional automation solutions into their workflows. And it’s also giving researchers a reason to push the boundaries of current laboratory automation technologies to see what’s possible.
Here’s an overview of the forces behind automation’s growth in laboratories, as well as how the available technology is coming together to create the laboratory facilities of the future.
Automation Adoption Rising
Even as the pandemic continues to rage, there’s growing evidence that automation is going to emerge as the cornerstone of the post-COVID-19 laboratory. Already, industry analysts are beginning to include the pandemic’s effects on the market. One such analysis predicts that the pandemic is behind an accelerating growth rate expected to top a 6% CAGR between now and 2024. That outlook points to a huge uptick in both interest and investment in automation technologies, at a pace that far outstrips pre-pandemic levels.
Outside Investment Increasing, Boosting Upgrades
It’s also important to note that the surge in interest (and need) for laboratory automation isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening at a time when laboratories are receiving a burst of both public and private funding streams intended to help them scale up to meet current and future challenges. In the US, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced over $6.4 million of additional funding going to two major US labs to help them purchase new equipment to increase their capacity in the near term.
By Dr. Deborah Vinton, medical director, emergency department, UVA Health and Inlightened Expert.
The way we talk, think about, plan, and innovate for healthcare delivery has fundamentally changed as a result of COVID-19. For those of us in healthcare, top priorities today are different than they were just a few months ago. Like in so many areas of life, coronavirus is rewriting the status quo.
As a physician on the frontlines, it has become painfully apparent that, as an industry, we have failed to design and develop tools and systems – for us – with us in mind. When it comes to innovating for those delivering the care, empathy is often times out of the process. From PPE (personal protective equipment) to telemedicine and everything in between, the lack of input and understanding may be furthering burnout, negatively impacting patient care, and fueling inefficiencies.
Empathy in innovation: We’ve made progress for patients
In healthcare, we’ve done a better (although not remotely perfect) job of integrating empathy into the design and innovation process for the patient to optimize patient experience. From lobbies to hospital rooms, we’ve seen patient-centric design aimed at delivering more comfortable, less stressful, and seamless experiences.
Patients today enter buildings that are light and airy, no longer have the traditional “sterile” feeling, boast extensive entertainment options, and prioritize patient needs, like access to Wi-Fi and charging stations. Protocols are designed by considering various risks, and prioritizing policies and workflows that will most positively impact the patient. All of these efforts demonstrate a much-needed understanding of – and commitment to – the patient and their experience.
Physicians are left behind and burned out
Like other industries, the evolution of healthcare has been aided by fast-paced innovation and technology. While conversations pre-COVID might have been around electronic health records (EHRs), real-time communication tools, and even innovating the scrubs we wear, COVID-19 has shed light on new priorities and the dramatic gaps that exist in the process for designing provider-centric tools.
According to McKinsey: From 2014 to 2018, there have been more than 580 healthcare technology deals in the United States, each more than $10 million, for a total of more than $83 billion in value. They have been disproportionately focused on three main categories: patient engagement, data and analytics, and new care models.
Consider the quick adoption of telehealth. While the ability to deliver care virtually to the patient was – and still is – unquestionably critical as the country sheltered in place, it has led to a lot of frustration and overwhelm for physicians who are trained to deliver patient care in-person. In medical school, we learn how to read what’s behind the presentation of symptoms and how to ask questions and listen to what’s behind the answer.
But we haven’t yet integrated into the curriculum how to implement technology to feel consistent with the way we’ve been trained to deliver care. We are being asked to understand – and flawlessly use – solutions that can be glitchy, disjointed, and impersonal, while simultaneously delivering care to patients that might be nervous, frustrated, ill, scared, or all of the above.