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Automation ups efficiency for Via Christi lab

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 20, 2013, at 10:05 p.m.

Not unlike inside a Coca Cola bottling plant, the equipment at Affiliated Medical Services Laboratory move in seemingly perfect choreography – extracting samples, mixing and incubating them before they continue their journey down an automated assembly line.

But the items on the automated line won’t be your favorite soft drink.

They’re test tubes full of blood samples from thousands of patients across the state.

“Health care has really taken a cue from industry over the years that automation is achievable,” said Edwin Harned, senior administrator at AMS.

Every week, tens of thousands of specimens are processed at AMS, located in a nondescript building at 2916 E. Central. The company, Harned said, is the largest reference laboratory biller for Medicare and Medicaid in the state.

AMS was founded in 1983 and is wholly owned by the nonprofit Via Christi Health. And it took on the laboratory testing for Via Christi Clinic in June.

The increased demand for services and the expectations for quick results from the lab meant AMS needed to look for more ways to be efficient, Harned said. So it recently installed and is currently programming a new $1.1million Inpeco robotic track and Abbott diagnostic testing machines that are slated to start running Sept. 28.

The track, which should have a lifespan of about 10 years, had to be custom fitted in the lab, Harned said, and has been planned for more than a year.

Test tubes are loaded onto the track by laboratory technicians before they start the journey to various testing machines, looping back down the other side of the track to be placed into a storage tower that can hold up to 15,000 specimens for more than a week.

If a technician requires a particular specimen for additional tests, they can enter the code into a computer and it will be retrieved, meaning no more manual searches in a 40-degree “blood closet,” saving time and risk of human error.

Technicians can tell the computer system how long it should hold the specimens, and when their time is up, a robotic arm will take the tube stored in the tower and discard it into a hazardous waste bin.

Prior to acquiring the lab services from Via Christi Clinic, AMS did about 2.4 million tests annually. With the acquisition and new automated system, AMS officials project they will conduct about 6 million tests annually.

“We keep the health care dollars in Kansas, and they’re reinvested in the health care system to help them stay on the cutting edge of technology, so our goal is to be profitable and funnel any of our profits into the health system. ... We play a pretty major role in that,” Harned said.

The lab does testing for 45 rural and metro hospitals, 125 long-term care and assisted-living facilities, 40 home health care agencies and 22 hospice providers, Harned said.

In 2012, it conducted testing for more than 11,000 people around the country as part of employer health and wellness programs, Harned said.

They also do testing for law enforcement and the court system, pre-employment drug testing and a growing division called “direct to consumer” testing, where a person can walk in off the street and order tests for themselves.

One of the big reasons AMS chose the Abbott line of equipment, said Bill Combs, laboratory manager, was that it could perform an HIV antigen and antibody test.

According to www.AIDS.gov, having antigen tests can help diagnose HIV one to three weeks after a person is first infected.

Donna Sweet, a Wichita physician who specializes in the care of HIV-positive and AIDS patients, said an earlier diagnosis can help inform people they have the infection before they show symptoms, and early diagnosis also can help prevent the spread of the disease.

She also said that new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines will recommend this kind of testing for patients and this new kind of equipment will be integral for earlier diagnosis.

Another advantage to the new equipment is that it allows Combs to look at the moving averages of lab results for different tests as they happen.

With such a large population of specimens, the averages for calcium levels should be fairly consistent from day to day. If the averages are suddenly skewed it can be an indicator of possible technical problems with the tests, he said.

Harned said the automated line will also help because there is a shortage of technicians.

AMS is also working to integrate lab results into electronic medical records, so that as soon as there are results, they are automatically sent to a doctor.

Prior to merging lab services with Via Christi Clinic, AMS had about 100 employees. Now it has about 150, Combs said.

A Via Christi spokeswoman said that there were no calls for reductions in staff with the Via Christi Clinic merger, which has been in the works for about a year, but about 10 positions were affected when Via Christi announced layoffs a few months ago.

Harned said their main competitors are national labs like Quest and LabCorp and that most reference labs across the state have been acquired by national companies.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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