People, not machines, are the key to good laboratory automation

An MD Buyline colleague and I recently visited the NorthShore Health System, Evanston Hospital, in Evanston, Ill. It’s the home of the nation’s first installation of the BD Kiestra™ TLA fully automated microbiology lab system, which became functional in 2015.

Automated microbiology is a recent phenomenon that showed the first glimmer of possibilities a decade ago. Interest in microbiology automation seemed to hit a peak around 2015 and has since waned slightly, according to MD Buyline data.

It’s not easy

The climb to microbiology automation is not easy. A lot of factors are tugging on this automation market:

  • Cost. Acquisition costs are high. The price range is $700,000 – $3.5 million, depending on the extent and level of the automation.
  • Consolidation of microbiology labs. Labs continue to grapple with whether to continue a microbiology lab in the hospital, send all their microbiology to a reference lab, consolidate within a system, or create a centralized offsite lab.
  • Molecular. Microbiology at the molecular level continues to be a disruptor for conventional microbiology and begs the question as to whether conventional microbiology (based on culture plate reading) will even stick, or eventually fade away.
  • People. The pool of experienced microbiology technologists continues to shrink. They are retiring in droves, and their replacements just aren’t there.

Somehow amidst the quagmire, Evanston Hospital got it all right.

  • Cost. They had administrative support that allowed them to move ahead with microbiology automation and get the funding. (They had good people.)
  • Consolidation of microbiology labs. They became the main hub for a four-hospital system and increased their outreach. (They had smart people.)
  • Molecular. They welcomed molecular and incorporated it into their final product. They have an open mind toward disruption and are eager to work with it. (They had good people.)
  • People. They reduced their microbiology staff through attrition and maintained a strong pool of older and younger workers. (They had good people.)

It takes good, smart people

Ironically, in the end, the success of this automation project has been due to the people more than the machines. This is not just an automated microbiology system at a hospital—it is a paradise within a segment of the laboratory.  It’s clean, it hums and buzzes, and the passion and enthusiasm are bursting at the seams. It’s because they have the right people. The microbiology laboratory at Evanston Hospital boasts good, smart people (fewer people than it once had), and they work hard.

This hospital project offers a stark example that it is not really a system that makes the automation, it is the people. Without good and smart people, automation is really just a pile of stuff. People are really the glue and the backbone that make it a success.

From left: Erin McElvania, PhD, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Evanston Hospital; Irene Dusich, MT(ASCP)SM, Manager, Microbiology & Molecular Epidemiology, Evanston Hospital; Dennis Matricardi, MS, SM(ASCP)DLM, Clinical Analyst, MD Buyline; and Diana Trinh, MLS (ASCP)CM, MD Buyline. Behind them is the BD Kiestra™ TLA fully automated microbiology lab system at the NorthShore Health System, Evanston Hospital, Evanston, Ill.

Dennis Matricardi, Clinical Analyst

Dennis Matricardi joined MD Buyline in 2000 with more than 30 years of hospital-based laboratory experience.