Use Histology Laboratory Data to Illustrate Specimen ‘Life Cycle’

One approach to improving staff productivity is to identify and eliminate bottlenecks in specimen flow

BECAUSE OF THE CHALLENGING LABOR MARKET, pathology labs need ways to boost staff productivity. To help identify workflow bottlenecks, one approach is to examine lab data and encourage bench teams to think holistically about specimen movement in the lab.

Cory Roberts, MD, Sonic Healthcare USA
Cory Roberts, MD

Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should not simply trust their eyes to catch these logjams, said Cory Roberts, MD, President of the Anatomic Pathology Division at Sonic Healthcare USA in Austin, Texas.

“When we dug into our lab data, we discovered bottleneck details we wouldn’t have otherwise known,” Roberts explained. “We know when staff accessioned the specimens, when specimens go to the grossing station, and when specimens move to the processing station. And we studied these peaks and valleys closely—which one would think could be identified simply by eyeballing the workflows—we learned that was not the case.”

Roberts spoke at last year’s Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management during a panel session titled, “Assessing the Potential of Developing Technologies in Histology and Digital Pathology.” 

‘Life Cycle’ of Specimen

Sonic Healthcare USA uses data as a building block to illustrate what Roberts described as the “life cycle” of a specimen. “The specimen has a complete life,” he observed. “Labs can’t view a specimen in phases, such as ‘Well, grossing did their job, but there’s a delay in histology.’ The end product is the only thing that matters, which could be diagnosis delivery or a step before that, like slide delivery.

“Every part of the lab team must share that view and goal,” Roberts added. “Bring those individual teams together and let them understand how the processes connect. Let them all own the same metric—such as slide delivery—as opposed to how many blocks are cut in an hour.”

Connecting bench staff with lab data can let them see what steps are pain points. “We’ve found improvements simply by doing that, and it did not involve a technology investment,” he said.

Seek Bench Staff Opinions

Another key point is to deliver data efficiently and let bench staff ruminate on it. “Simple things can help, such as sharing automated data reports generated by the laboratory information systems, so that people start thinking about the same processes,” Roberts noted. “If labs do that, people will talk about the whole unit as opposed to just individual marks, thus creating an accurate life cycle of the specimen.”

Managers must also let bench staff offer ideas to improve processes; data can’t solely drive improvements, he said. “Bench workers know things that pathologists and managers may not—things that the numbers cannot reveal. We found many things that came directly from rank-and-file workers, but the only way that approach works is for everybody to see the whole process.”

Contact Cory Roberts, MD, at



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