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From Good to Great: Keys to a Thriving Clinical Lab Outreach Program

As demand for lab services grows, successful outreach programs are essential for expanding access and driving revenue

Jim Thomsen

Jim Thomsen has served in a variety of roles over his 11 year career in laboratory distribution. Today, he serves as the director of business development for the clinical laboratory...

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Hospital and health system laboratories—once unseen and often underappreciated—have gained prominence and value since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spotlight is long overdue given that 70 percent of medical decisions rely on clinical lab results, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Clinical labs not only provide accurate and timely disease diagnosis and critical public health data but they also increasingly contribute to health system revenue and profit.

In-house labs deliver faster turnaround times and test results to providers and their patients, reducing the need to ship tests off-site for analysis and expanding the breadth of tests that networks can offer on-site. As healthcare evolves to include more telemedicine, concierge medicine, and in-home care, the need for lab services will only continue to grow.

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With demand for lab services and testing on the rise, health systems look to their in-house labs to expand beyond a single hospital or health system. In fact, most in-house labs currently offer or are interested in launching an outreach model to make their lab services available to businesses, schools and other organizations in the community-at-large.

Successful clinical lab outreach programs foster constructive relationships beyond individual hospital and healthcare systems with physicians and specialists, long-term care facilities, and patients. Based on my experience from working with labs across the country, technicians working in clinical labs with outreach have expressed higher levels of job satisfaction and caring, knowing that their efforts contribute to the well-being of others in the community beyond hospital system walls. Furthermore, as outreach programs help drive clinical lab revenue and growth, parent healthcare systems can enhance in-house lab resources and invest in state-of-the-art technology, which enhances social determinants of health in the communities they serve.

Outreach program challenges

While opportunities exist for growth and even profit, lab outreach is impacted by broader lab challenges, including staffing (the number one challenge facing the lab), cyber and other security issues, and the growing cost of laboratory equipment, supplies, and technology. There are also lab-specific regulatory and compliance requirements as well as coding and billing complexities.

In addition, the outreach lab market is competitive. There are at least a dozen large, national clinical laboratory operators and other large health system outreach programs—including regional programs—providing service across state lines.

What makes a good outreach program great?

Successful outreach programs differentiate themselves in three areas:

Technology and automation: Outreach programs thrive when in-house labs commit to the necessary space, staff, and instrumentation to handle the expanded throughput of an outreach program. Successful outreach programs also continuously research and update the breadth of tests their clients are seeking. Test menu offerings currently in demand include quantitative drug testing, allergy testing, TB Gold testing, and transplant monitoring. Now more than ever, as we emerged out of the pandemic with labs outfitted with many different platforms for molecular testing, multiplex PCR testing for STIs, UTIs, GI, etc. has become a hot topic and is emerging as a very profitable opportunity for outreach programs.

On the business side, labs with automated, fully integrated lab information management systems (LIS or LIMS) that connect patient registration, test kit ordering, specimen collection workflow, telemedicine, physician approval, e-prescribing, and more can increase outreach lab throughput. Post-analytical technology that streamlines verification, recording, and sharing of lab results also improves overall outreach lab productivity.

Efficient, optimized processes: Once the testing menu is maximized, successful outreach programs conduct regular internal audits of financial and data reporting systems to identify sunken costs that can weigh down the efficiency of an outreach program, then act to address areas of concern.

For example, to reduce excess inventory and waste from expired product, labs deploy logical unit of measure (LUM) inventory programs. These inventory programs evaluate the historical demand profile of the lab, optimizing the product mix, on-hand target inventory levels, and replenishment unit of measure to the level that maximizes the utilization of space provided for inventory storage. High freight costs and costly courier services to deliver supplies to clients are minimized by getting lab partners involved.

On the clinical side, real-time automated inventory management systems reduce staff time spent on inventory management. Specimen-ready labels and standardized requisitions mean less touch points and errors. Enforcement of process standardization translates into reduced variability, minimal disruptions due to staff turnovers and rotations, and overall improved lab performance.

The right team: Top outreach program teams are typically made up of:

  • An experienced, future-focused laboratory medical director. A successful lab leader has a business mindset, an awareness of industry trends, including technology and software, infectious diseases and public health, and how the lab broadly impacts healthcare. The laboratory director should be committed to the regular review of staffing, procedures, and costs. Successful lab leaders also know how to keep and attract the best clinical staff; a critical attribute with ongoing shortages of pathologists and other laboratorians.
  • A tactical outreach coordinator. An outreach coordinator represents a clinical lab to current and potential lab clients beyond the system. An effective outreach coordinator has a lab background along with community relations, marketing, and negotiation skills. A large-scale outreach program might have a full sales team that is responsible for finding new clients.
  • Skilled and engaged laboratorians. A thriving lab outreach program has the right mix of skilled staff, including pathologists, managers and supervisors, and technicians. Top clinical labs hire laboratorians who also understand customer service along with the role of the lab in optimal patient care. To attract and retain top lab talent, labs implement creative team recognition and advancement programs and build university partnerships that support an ongoing pipeline of quality staff.
  • A trusted lab partner. Experienced lab partners find ways to free up lab staff from non-clinical, time-consuming tasks, such as managing the supply closet, taking outreach orders, shipping materials, and more. A trusted supply partner should not only have expertise to manage inventory distribution, courier services, and related reporting, but also the ideal lab partner can ship directly from its warehouse to the client—minimizing time spent by lab team members on logistics and admin. A good lab partner also sees the bigger picture, staying abreast of industry trends, including technology and compliance issues. 

Delivering results

No lab or lab outreach can meet its full potential without direct access and support from the hospital or health system’s executive team. Lab needs the full support of key departments and leadership within the hospital, including IT, finance, clinical, and supply chain, to ensure success.

During COVID-19, lab leaders were given ready access—some were even elevated—to the C-suite as providers began acknowledging the investments required in lab technology, staff, automation, and other resources to ensure lab and lab outreach success.  

Lab outreach has become a significant source of revenue as well as brand-building for healthcare networks. And, with the right technology and automation, processes, and team, lab outreach can continue to be recognized as a critical asset to the overall success of their networks.