New Lab Improving Patient Results

by Dr. Keith Knepp
UnityPoint Health

A new microbiology lab speeds up the process from testing to diagnosis to treatment.

Clinical microbiology is a term that may not sound that exciting. But at UnityPoint Health, it’s helping people feel better, faster. The new microbiology lab is instrumental in speeding up the process from testing to diagnosis, and then to treatment. Historically, patients waited days for cultures to grow and those results to be reported back to their provider. Now, the microbiology lab at UnityPoint Health is helping providers to more quickly diagnose infectious disease, helping many of the patients who come through our doors. 

Laboratories and testing have long been moving toward automation to allow for faster results and more efficient staffing. Microbiology has been challenged to move at the same speed. There is a nationwide shortage of clinical laboratory scientists and technicians, while microbiology testing is in higher demand. The challenge has been how to create an effective automated process that produces faster results, and helps our organization attract and retain quality team members. 

One of the most important changes that led to microbiology automation was the advent of liquid-based media for culture collection techniques. The swabs in liquid-based media have shown to be superior in detecting organisms that cause infections in patients. Liquid-based media has allowed for automated processing to progress, leading to pipette systems that place consistent amounts of specimen on a plate for culture. The processors also streak out the specimen for culture, leading to improved consistency and better detection of pathogens compared to traditional cultures.

Additional automation components, like incubators, have since been developed with a digital camera inside. In traditional culture processing, technologists would remove all cultures from patients processed the day before and set them at room temperature to read each plate individually. Digital imaging allows technologists to pull up a patient’s cultures on a screen and evaluate which organisms need to be sent for identification and antibiotic susceptibility testing. This is all done without the culture plates being removed from the incubator, which allows the organisms to grow at a more rapid pace. 

Studies have shown that by using digital imaging for cultures, the time needed to identify organisms could decrease by 24 hours. That could give physicians direction to make antibiotic decisions up to 48 hours faster compared to traditional cultures. The use of automation has the potential to reallocate technical staff to reading culture plates instead of focusing on the processing of specimens, which helps with the shortage of technologists entering the workforce. Furthermore, a barcoding process through automation increases quality assurance. 

In 2018, UnityPoint Health began the process of implementing its own automated system to serve people in the central Illinois and Quad Cities regions. We expect to be fully up and running by April 2019. We are already seeing improved turnaround times with urine culture results, as well as an increased detection of Group A Streptococcus from our throat cultures. As the technology advances and we move forward with this technology, we expect to see even more improvement in patient care. iBi

Keith Knepp, MD, is president of UnityPoint Health - Methodist and Proctor, UnityPoint Clinic and ProHealth Medical Group.

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