The COVID-19 pandemic taxed the US healthcare system, particularly the clinical laboratories. During this period, routine screening for cancer and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) was severely impacted (e.g., one large urban medical center experienced a 42 percent reduction in STI testing levels during COVID-19). The pandemic highlighted the critical need for skilled laboratory professionals and exposed areas where clinical laboratories can improve, such as boosting healthcare provider (HCP) education, enhancing lab staffing programs and experiences, and adopting more automated platforms.
Addressing these areas of improvement will not only help clinical laboratories better prepare for when/if the next pandemic occurs, but also help patients today as we return to our “normal” pre-pandemic operations.
Partnering with HCPs to improve STI care
Educating HCPs on available STI testing is important to improving care, especially since routine testing and screening declined during the pandemic. HCPs often base their testing requests on national data and clinical guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but clinical laboratories can also play a role by providing HCPs with the latest surveillance data on STIs in their specific geographical markets.
Having a better understanding of the latest guidelines and being aware of the highly prevalent and emerging STIs, such as Trichomonas vaginalis and Mycoplasma genitalium, can help to improve testing decisions and thereby diagnosis.
Training the next generation of clinical laboratory professionals
While COVID-19 taught us to be better at multitasking, it cannot compensate for the fact that so many clinical laboratories are understaffed and that a significant part of the workforce now constitutes young professionals who lack hands-on experience in diagnostic testing despite having science degrees.
In addition to offering financial incentives and filling vacant positions, there are several ways to better support staff:
- Create entry training programs.
- Incentivize experienced staff for staying with new, evolved roles in training and supervising new staff on developed assays.
- Carve out new full-time roles dedicated solely to performing validation/verification studies.
- Implement a “desk day” every other week or so for select technologists to complete paperwork (e.g., review QC or competency and proficiency testing, catch up on continuing or mandatory education).
Equipping your laboratory with the right tools
Automation was key to keeping up with the demands of COVID-19 testing and remains our main strategy for delivering both volume and accuracy. However, before investing in new equipment, we must make sure that these instruments will meet laboratory needs.
As laboratory professionals, we should consider which platforms meet the laboratory needs for flexibility, reliability, efficiency (including equipment dimensions), performance, and test menu. The platform should also ensure the scalability and growth necessary to keep up with the ever-changing laboratory landscape and diagnostic demands. When the budget for capital expenditures is limited, choose an instrument that provides maximum return.