Despite the Challenges, Labs Are Prevailing

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EVENTS IN THE WORLD, THE UNITED STATE, AND THE U.S. HEALTHCARE SYSTEM over the past two years have challenged clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups in unprecedented ways. 

Stand back for a moment and consider what has unfolded since Jan. 1, 2020. Cases of SARS-CoV-2 exploded across the globe. At the same time, nations locked down their entire populations for months at a time. During these early months of the pandemic, clinical laboratories saw the daily volume of regular lab specimens fall by as much as 60% from pre-pandemic levels. Some pathology groups reported an 80% decline in tissue referrals during this same time! 

This severe drop in regular testing volume deprived labs of essential revenue, just when they needed it most to ramp up their ability to process large volumes of COVID-19 tests. Simultaneously, it was nearly impossible to access an adequate supply of lab analyzers, kits, and consumables. Complicating that problem was the federal government, which arbitrarily redirected supplies away from labs ready to receive them so as to send those materials to the labs and communities the feds deemed in greater need. 

Today, most of us would agree that the pandemic has released its tight grip on society. After a full two years, Farr’s Law seems to be playing out. William Farr is the British epidemiologist, who, in 1840, postulated that “diseases of the epidemic class follow laws of their own; they remain nearly stationary during months, years, and, as we learn from medical history, centuries; then suddenly rise, like a mist from the earth, and shed desolation on nations—to disappear as rapidly or insensibly as they came.” 

Whether SARS-CoV-2 disappears or becomes endemic—much like influenza or the common cold—we have arrived at a moment when COVID-19 is not the dominant challenge in clinical lab testing. Rather, the biggest source of stress these days is the shortage of medical technologists, pathologists, and the other types of laboratory scientists. (See pages 3-5.) 

The staffing shortage still needs a solution, whether it is more training programs or new automation that can eliminate many manual processes. That said, the good news is that, collectively, many of the nation’s hospital/health system labs, independent labs, genetic testing labs, and anatomic pathology labs are strong, adequately financed, and poised to go forward. 

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