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The Clinical Lab Post-COVID-19

As we adjust to a “new normal,” clinical leaders must be prepared to embrace a shift toward hybrid work

Donald Mason, MSc

Donald Mason is the global scientific affairs manager for Waters Corporation’s in vitro diagnostics business. He has 20+ years’ experience in the application of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to high-value medical lab tests. Mr. Mason has served on numerous scientific/advisory committees of internationally recognized professional societies including CLSI, AACC, and MSACL.

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Published:Jul 28, 2021
|3 min read
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The impact of COVID-19 on clinical laboratories 

Corporate employees weren’t the only ones sent home last March. Scientists in clinical labs across the nation lost time, access to technology, and critical on-site data when COVID-19 numbers spiked. The experience has opened the eyes of many in the life sciences to how, where, and when they can work. 

With a recent survey revealing that 72 percent of respondents think the lab of the future will be 50 percent virtual or more by 2030, it’s important for leaders to recognize the underlying shift toward hybrid work in the life science industry. As we adjust to the “new normal,” clinical leaders must be prepared to embrace the future of science and lab research. 

Advances in innovation

The pandemic spurred unprecedented cross-industry collaboration through remote work platforms. Digital tools broke down barriers as clinical teams adopted them to connect with each other remotely, freeing them to collaborate in real time, regardless of distance. Adapting to tools like online brainstorming and whiteboard technology helps teams complete projects faster, and these tools will likely be mainstays in the clinical lab moving forward. 

It goes beyond collaborative technology, too. Labs that were dabbling in basic robotics before the pandemic accelerated that interest, with a fair number of lab managers who sought to automate more tasks such as laborious manual pipetting for sample preparation to fully robotized lab workloads. Through automation and some basic AI and machine learning, scientists learned to use new tools and technologies to adapt certain tasks that still need to be done in the lab to be completed without human oversight. Seeing gains in efficiency and a reduction in certain tedious manual tasks, it’s easy to see why these new practices will likely continue for scientists who can now go into the lab when it’s more convenient for them to conduct physical components of a project. Moreover, analytical tools and instruments have become digital, taking analysis work out of the lab and on to a computer (or even a phone) and allowing lab professionals to take their work anywhere.

The role of mass spectrometry

Mass spectrometry has a significant role to play in the lab post-pandemic, particularly when it comes to remote sampling in the clinical environment. The remote sampling conversation was a topic of discussion among academics before the pandemic, and COVID-19 pushed its value among the wider industry. Over the past year, many lab tests were adapted for at-home sampling, often sparing the patient a visit to a doctor’s office and reducing the risk and transmission of infectious diseases.

As an example, clinical scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Seattle developed a dried blood test several years ago for the measurement of the immunosuppressant drug tacrolimus. Whole capillary blood is collected at home from a fingerstick on especially absorbent filter paper and sent to the lab for testing. Remote sample collection in this setting is highly desirable because tacrolimus—a potent drug used to prevent organ rejection in solid organ transplant recipients—suppresses the patient’s immune system, also making them more vulnerable to nosocomial infections. So, it follows logically that the avoidance of a trip to the hospital is not only convenient, but also safer. 

While this transition has been convenient for some lab tests, current remote technology is not de rigueur in laboratory medicine. Utilizing mass spectrometry tools more frequently in the clinical lab environment has benefits post-pandemic as the value of remote sampling becomes more widely recognized.

What’s next?

Increased automation of common lab tasks and workflows will continue, spurred by their accelerated use out of necessity during the pandemic. The modern hospital laboratory, for example, has already embraced innovations such as tracking enabled systems for sample processing and QC checking, but these tools still require at least some manual participation from scientists. And it’s that theme that will continue for the clinical laboratory—a hybrid approach where more advanced technologies require less frequent human intervention, while also enhancing data quality with greater reproducibility. This will allow scientists to focus on more value-add activities such as interpreting patient results, developing innovative clinical lab tests and performing life-saving research.